A gene editing startup wants to help you eat healthier salads. This month, North Carolina-based Pairwise will launch a new type of mustard greens designed to be less bitter than the original plant. The vegetable is the first Crispr-edited food to hit the US market.
Mustard greens are packed with vitamins and minerals, but have a strong peppery flavor when eaten raw. To make them more flavorful, they are usually cooked. Pairwise wanted to retain the health benefits of mustard greens but make them tastier for the average shopper, so company scientists used the Crispr DNA-editing tool to remove a gene responsible for its spiciness. The company hopes consumers will opt for its greens over less nutritious ones like iceberg lettuce and butter.
“Basically, we created a new category of salad,” says Tom Adams, co-founder and CEO of Pairwise. The greens will initially be available at select restaurants and other retail outlets in Minneapolis–St. Paul Region, St. Louis and Springfield, Massachusetts. The company plans to start stocking the vegetables in grocery stores this summer, likely first in the Pacific Northwest.
A natural part of the immune system of bacteria, Crispr was first harnessed as a gene-editing tool in 2012. Since then, scientists have envisioned elevated uses for the technique. If you could modify the genetic code of plants, you could, at least in theory, install any number of favorable traits in them. For example, you can grow crops that produce higher yields, resist pests and diseases, or require less water. Crispr has yet to end world hunger, but in the short term, it may give consumers more variety in what they eat.
Pairwise’s goal is to make already healthy foods more convenient and enjoyable. Beyond mustard greens, the company is also trying to improve the fruits. He is using Crispr to develop seedless blackberries and pitted cherries. “Our lifestyles and needs are evolving and we are becoming more aware of our nutritional deficit,” says Haven Baker, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Pairwise. In 2019, only about one in 10 adults in the US met the recommended daily intake of 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Technically, the new mustard greens are not a genetically modified organism or GMO. In agriculture, GMOs are those that are obtained by adding genetic material from a completely different species. These are crops that could not be produced through conventional selective breeding, that is, choosing parent plants with certain characteristics in order to produce offspring with more desirable traits.
Instead, Crispr involves modifying an organism’s own genes; no foreign DNA is added. One of the benefits of Crispr is that you can breed new plant varieties in a fraction of the time it takes to produce a new one through traditional breeding. It took Pairwise just four years to bring his mustard greens to market; it can take a decade or more to achieve desired characteristics through the centuries-old practice of crossbreeding.