China has more scientists using CRISPR than any other country. They’re not just making designer babies like He Jiankui did, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. Instead, they’re trying to engineer crops to help feed China’s growing population, make more accurate animal models to study diseases and provide organs for transplant, and develop more precise and effective medications. And like most governments around the world, the Chinese government is still struggling to figure out how to regulate the technology. This article offers an overview of how Chinese scientists are wielding this gene-editing tool.
China’s largest use of CRISPR is for engineering crops to feed its growing population.
At least 20 groups in China are using CRISPR to modify crops. They’re using it to edit genes in plants long subjected to traditional breeding techniques: to make fungus-resistant wheat, hardy tomatoes and corn that can resist earworms. China has a massive population – almost a billion and a half people – and limited natural resources. They need to use every tool available to them to maximize their harvests.
China is betting on CRISPR to help them do it. In 2017, China purchased Syngenta – a Swiss company that was one of the world’s four biggest agribusinesses – for $43 billion. It was the most money that China had ever spent on a foreign company. Syngenta researchers have developed a method that uses corn pollen to deliver CRISPR into plant cells, which had been technically challenging because plant cells have rigid cell walls. Preliminary data suggest that the method also works in wheat and some vegetables.
CRISPR crops are not in Chinese markets or on Chinese tables yet because the Chinese government hasn’t decided how to categorize and regulate them. In 2018 the...
Jon Cohen is a staff writer at Science magazine who covers biomedicine, HIV/AIDS, immunology, vaccines, genetics and global health. His reporting has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Outside, and Slate.