Cassava is a staple crop for nearly one billion people around the world, but one important—and sometimes fatal—problem is that its roots contain the precursor of cyanide. In this CRISPR Cuts podcast, IGI researchers Jess Lyons, Ph.D., and Michael Gomez, Ph.D., sat down with host Meenakshi Prabhune to discuss their work using genome editing to eliminate cyanide in cassava.
With proper processing, cyanide can be removed from cassava and the starch from its roots can be safely consumed. Protein-rich diets can also mitigate the effects of cyanide. But for many populations that depend on cassava as a staple crop, proper processing and high-protein diets are not always an option.
“The processing could involve something like soaking for a few days. So, if you’re starving then that might not be an option for you,” said Lyons, a lead researcher for the project. “The processing also falls disproportionately on women, and it’s a lot of work. So, the impetus of our project is to really mitigate those neurotoxic effects of accidental and/or chronic ingestion of the cyanide and also the work that it requires to process it.”
Chronic cyanide consumption can ultimately result in neurological impairment and even konzo, a disease that causes paralysis of the legs. These issues are well-documented in Africa, where roughly 40 percent of Africans rely on cassava as a major source of calories.
Lyons and Gomez are working with scientists in Africa to use CRISPR to reduce the levels of cyanide in cassava. In the lab, the team has been able to remove the cyanide from the plant tissue.
“We know that when we knock out both of the genes we’re targeting that code for this one enzyme at the beginning of the pathway, that we don’t detect cyanide in the tissue in the leaves or the roots,” Lyons said.
One of the next steps is improving upon the non-transgenic approaches to genome editing. Successfully using non-transgenic methods, Gomez says, means that the crop wouldn’t be regulated as a genetically modified organism (GMO), a regulatory hurdle that many plant scientists face.
“The real challenge right now is improving upon the non-transgenic methods. There are a lot of tools, new publications coming out all the time of very creative ways to do so. And we’re implementing them excitedly,” said Gomez.
How are Lyons and Gomez using CRISPR to eliminate cyanide in cassava and what are some other challenges they face? Listen to find out!
Click to hear the full, 26-minute episode below, or read the blog post here.
IGI Researchers Are Using CRISPR to Reduce Cyanide in Cassava
CRISPR Cuts | Synthego | April 28, 2021