Department of plant pathology disable viruses in plants

Special enzyme can split strands of DNA to remove virus that destroys crops

ALANA LACKNER, Evergreen managing editor

By editing genes, scientists can disable viruses in plants and make them more resistant to disease. WSU researchers have been working on altering plant DNA using CRISPR-Cas9 which is referred to as CRISPR. 

Hanu Pappu, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, said scientists are able to change the genetic makeup of different species with CRISPR.

Pappu and his team have been working on altering virus genes in infected plants. The researchers were able to keep the plants uninfected by cutting out the genes which allow the virus to multiply and survive. 

The viruses targeted were begomoviruses which are viruses spread by certain insects. Begomoviruses are known for destroying crops which can be detrimental in agricultural areas.

Pappu said he believes CRISPR has the potential to fix many agricultural problems.

“Once we identify what gene and what nucleotide in the DNA to edit, [we can] bring about that positive outcome,” he said.

CRISPR stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” which is a specialized region of DNA. Cas9 is a special enzyme that works like a sharp knife and splits strands of DNA apart, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. 

“The applications are absolutely limitless,” Pappu said. “[It works] for improving crop productivity, for making crops resistant to pests and diseases, for making crops resilient through climate change. It’s absolutely limitless.”

Recently, there have been international stories about CRISPR potentially eliminating illnesses in other species such as muscular dystrophy in pigs or possibly boosting the human body’s immunity to various illnesses.

Pappu said researchers are just now discovering all of CRISPR’s possibilities. Any research done at WSU could lead to a big discovery somewhere else, he said.