How CRISPR Could Transform Global Development – part 1

By Bill Gates

Today, more people are living healthy, productive lives than ever before. This good news may come as a surprise, but there is plenty of evidence for it. Since the early 1990s, global child mortality has been cut in half. There have been massive reductions in cases of tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. The incidence of polio has decreased by 99 percent, bringing the world to the verge of eradicating a major infectious disease, a feat humanity has accomplished only once before, with smallpox. The proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per day, has fallen from 35 percent to about 11 percent.

Continued progress is not inevitable, however, and a great deal of unnecessary suffering and inequity remains. By the end of this year, five million children under the age of five will have died—mostly in poor countries and mostly from preventable causes. Hundreds of millions of other children will continue to suffer needlessly from diseases and malnutrition that can cause lifelong cognitive and physical disabilities. And more than 750 million people—mostly rural farm families in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—still live in extreme poverty, according to World Bank estimates. The women and girls among them, in particular, are denied economic opportunity.

Some of the remaining suffering can be eased by continuing to fund the development assistance programs and multilateral partnerships that are known to work. These efforts can help sustain progress, especially as the world gets better at using data to help guide the allocation of resources. But ultimately, eliminating the most persistent diseases and causes of poverty will require scientific discovery and technological innovations. 

That includes CRISPR and other technologies for targeted gene editing. Over the next decade, gene editing could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development. The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor. It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, more nutritious, and hardier. New technologies are often met with skepticism. But if the world is to continue the remarkable progress of the past few decades, it is vital that scientists, subject to safety and ethics guidelines, be encouraged to continue taking advantage of such promising tools as CRISPR.

FEEDING THE WORLD

Earlier this year, I traveled to Scotland, where I met with some extraordinary scientists associated with the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Healthat the University of Edinburgh. I learned about advanced genomic research to help farmers in Africa breed more productive chickens and cows. As the scientists explained, the breeds of dairy cows that can survive in hot, tropical environments tend to produce far less milk than do Holsteins—which fare poorly in hot places but are extremely productive in more moderate climates, thanks in part to naturally occurring mutations that breeders have selected for generations. The scientists in Scotland are collaborating with counterparts in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and the United States. They are studying ways to edit the genes of tropical breeds of cattle to give them the same favorable genetic traits that make Holsteins so productive, potentially boosting the tropical breeds’ milk and protein production by as much as 50 percent. Conversely, scientists are also considering editing the genes of Holsteins to produce a sub-breed with a short, sleek coat of hair, which would allow the cattle to tolerate heat.

This sort of research is vital, because a cow or a few chickens, goats, or sheep can make a big difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people, three-quarters of whom get their food and income by farming small plots of land. Farmers with livestock can sell eggs or milk to pay for day-to-day expenses. Chickens, in particular, tend to be raised by women, who are more likely than men to use the proceeds to buy household necessities. Livestock help farmers’ families get the nutrition they need, setting children up for healthy growth and success in school.

Similarly, improving the productivity of crops is fundamental to ending extreme poverty. Sixty percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa earn their living by working the land. But given the region’s generally low agricultural productivity—yields of basic cereals are five times higher in North America—Africa remains a net importer of food. This gap between supply and demand will only grow as the number of mouths to feed increases. Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2.5 billion, and its food production will need to match that growth to feed everyone on the continent. The challenge will become even more difficult as climate change threatens the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia.

 Gene editing to make crops more abundant and resilient could be a lifesaver on a massive scale. The technology is already beginning to show results, attracting public and private investment, and for good reason. Scientists are developing crops with traits that enhance their growth, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, boost their nutritional value, and make the plants hardier during droughts and hot spells. Already, many crops that have been improved by gene editing are being developed and tested in the field, including mushrooms with longer shelf lives, potatoes low in acrylamide (a potential carcinogen), and soybeans that produce healthier oil.

For a decade, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been backing research into the use of gene editing in agriculture. In one of the first projects we funded, scientists from the University of Oxford are developing improved varieties of rice, including one called C4 rice. Using gene editing and other tools, the Oxford scientists were able to rearrange the cellular structures in rice plant leaves, making C4 rice a remarkable 20 percent more efficient at photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into food. The result is a crop that not only produces higher yields but also needs less water. That’s good for food security, farmers’ livelihoods, and the environment, and it will also help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

Such alterations of the genomes of plants and even animals are not new. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years through selective breeding. Scientists began recombining DNA molecules in the early 1970s, and today, genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture and in medicine, the latter to mass-produce human insulin, hormones, vaccines, and many drugs. Gene editing is different in that it does not produce transgenic plants or animals—meaning it does not involve combining DNA from different organisms. With CRISPR, enzymes are used to target and delete a section of DNA or alter it in other ways that result in favorable or useful traits. Most important, it makes the discovery and development of innovations much faster and more precise.

To read the conclusion of this article, please see “How CRISPR Could Transform Global Development – part 2”