Students travel to investigate gene-editing technology

By Ed Adcock, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications Service

A course project investigating a pioneering gene-editing technique at Iowa State University and elsewhere included a student trip to some of the labs where it originated and a video to document the learning process.

The spring semester class, offered by the economics department and the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, focused on the technology known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which has the potential of increasing the precision of gene editing. Scientists are using it to research the prevention and treatment of diseases, increasing the productivity of crops and livestock, improving food nutrition among other possibilities.

Alan Myers, a professor in Iowa State’s Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology, has been using the technique for about three years studying metabolism in corn seeds to understand the fundamental process underlying how the grain kernels fill. CRISPR has allowed his team to create mutations in at least two genes that previously have not been studied.

“The outcomes of the work involving CRISPR-induced mutations will enable future genetic engineering towards the goals of improved nutritional quality, improved yield, maintenance of yield in stressed environments such as elevated growth temperatures, and other applications,” he said.

Great experience

David Krog, the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative's entrepreneur in residence and a lecturer in the economics department, led the course. He said the goal was to learn about CRISPR, how it works and the potential for consumer acceptance.

“It was a great experience for the students. I was really impressed by the quality of people who were willing to meet with us and talk to us,” Krog said.

The class visiting a USDA Agricultural Research Service facility in California.

In California, the class visited researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Davis, and got to talk with colleagues of one of the CRISPR discoverers. A Dupont Pioneer facility was one of the Iowa visits.

“I learned a great deal about CRISPR technology and what it can do for not only the future of agriculture, but for the medical industry as well,” said Hannah Pagel, a senior in the class.

The course also fit into her future plans as an agriculture education major.

“My career plans have always been focused on incorporating education and breaking down the sciences behind complex subjects for the general public. But what I found to be an important component is how we go about approaching these subjects or have conversations with consumers. How we approach the situation and listen to the concerns consumers have, go a long way in telling the story of agriculture to help build relationships or clear up misconceptions,” she said.

Beyond the CRISPR technology, the students also learned what goes into video production.

“When we started, we had no idea how to make a video,” Krog said.

B&G Productions in Ames and the Brenton Center for Agricultural Instruction and Technology Transfer helped with production and Scott Siepker narrated the video. The Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association helped with travel costs. 

To view the 26 minute video go to: https://youtu.be/5CDaERVaO1A

The students got involved in shooting some of the video and commented on screen about what they learned. The students in order of appearance in the video are:

  • Rebecca Frantz, freshman, agricultural business, Wellman, Iowa
  • Will Stouffer, senior, agricultural business, Liberty, Missouri
  • Hans Riensche, freshman, agricultural business, Jesup, Iowa
  • Whitley Frieden, senior, agricultural studies, Joy, Illinois
  • Leonardo Casaroli, graduate student, food economics, Piacenza, Italy
  • Sam Gorden, junior, animal science, Ames, Iowa
  • Hannah Pagel, senior, agricultural education, Sumner, Iowa
  • Alberto Basilissi, graduate student, food economics, Matelica, Italy
  • Sean Mears, senior, agricultural studies, Wapello, Iowa
  • Josh Thompson, senior, agronomy & environmental studies, Cedar Falls, Iowa
  • Kayleigh Koch, junior, agricultural business, Hawkeye, Iowa

June 6, 2018