1:51 min Read
Sweet potatoes are a favorite food of kids, teens, adults — and garden pests. Yes, roundworms, weevils and other insects are fond of gnawing on these root vegetables, too, and this poses a challenge to sweet potato growers around the world.
Scientists think they have a solution to fend off these hungry pests with a new process called gene editing. By using their deep understanding of genetics and nature, researchers are optimistic they can produce pest-resistant sweet potatoes. And that’s not all. Scientists can use this process to make sweet potatoes that resist disease, yield more crops and pack more nutrients into each potato compared to traditional varieties. Best part: They still taste delicious.
Using CRISPR, we can identify the genes that are the most useful for producing the changes we want during future studies
Dr. Marceline Egnin,
Professor, Tuskegee University
Researchers at Tuskegee University in Alabama start by identifying naturally-occuring sweet potato genes that represent desirable characteristics, like pest resistance. They then use gene editing to add these desired genes into sweet potato varieties that are already high-yielding, flavorful and nutritious. The result? Overachieving sweet potatoes that are vitamin-rich, tasty and pest resistant.
The sweet potato plays a critical role in the healthy American diet. Those with yellow and orange flesh have high levels of beta-carotene, which the human body converts to vitamin A. A diet with Vitamin A contributes to normal vision and healthy organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys.
Dr. Marceline Egnin, professor of plant and soil sciences at Tuskegee, thinks about the long-game of gene editing as she leads the university’s sweet potato project.
“Using CRISPR, we can identify the genes that are the most useful for producing the changes we want during future studies,” Egnin said. She sees multiple use case scenarios for these gene-edited sweet potato varieties, including helping growers in developing regions of the world. More specifically, gene editing could be used to add more protein to these potatoes, Egnin said.
More than 140 million preschool-age children around the world suffer from vitamin A deficiencies that can lead to weakened immune systems, stunted growth, blindness or even death.
Samuel Acheampong, a scholar at Michigan State University, thinks gene editing could boost levels of beta-carotene in white-fleshed sweet potato varieties, which are commonly grown in his home country of Ghana. He knows that the sweet potato’s positive traits make it an ideal crop for resource-poor growers in Ghana and other developing nations. In fact, sweet potato was listed as one of the five most important food crops in Ghana.
There’s a bright future ahead for sweet potatoes, whether they include more protein and beta-carotene or are disease- and pest-resistant — or all of the above. This superfood is about to get even more powerful in our own country and around the globe.