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University receives federal funding for technology that could revolutionize future food supply: 'It helped us to find the target genes'

"We think this is urgent for our students to learn and practice this technology."

"We think this is urgent for our students to learn and practice this technology."

Photo Credit: iStock

The University of Hawai'i at Manoa is getting $149,000 from the government to research how a new type of gene-altering technology could be used to expand the shelf life of various foods.

The research is spearheaded by an assistant professor from the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, Zhi-an "Rock" Du, who will use the grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to lead workshops and courses on the applications of CRISPR — a technology that scientists can use to alter the DNA of living organisms.

"It's like a Google map," Professor Du said of CRISPR. "It helped us to find the target genes in the very complicated chromosome. So with this technology, we can easily modify the target genes, we can do a lot of editing, and we can improve the products."

The hope is that the university's research could help Hawaii's food exports to be more resilient to the effects of human-caused pollution, as well as longer lasting. CRISPR has already been used by other food scientists worldwide, who have managed to create things like tomatoes that can grow in space and "cow-free dairy."

One of the scientists behind the tomatoes touted CRISPR as a way to "produce crops in new ways, without having to tear up the land as much or add excessive fertilizer that runs off into rivers and streams."

While some people have understandable reservations about eating genetically modified foods, Du also explained that CRISPR technology differs from other GMO crops because CRISPR splices together genes from the same species.

"It's getting really popular and you will see many products available using CRISPR technology. That's why we think this is urgent for our students to learn and practice this technology," he said.

"As [CRISPR] is developing, we're also learning with it," graduate student Julia Yuson told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "They don't need to have a lot of science background to join this CRISPR workshop. We'll teach the basics and it's so new."

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