Blog #4: Decreasing Reliance on Pesticides and Fertilizer Usage Through Gene Editing (Series)

By NAWG Summer 2019 Intern Merrick Irvin

Within the United States, many farmers utilize resources around them to ensure a healthy, bountiful crop is produced on their farm. Specifically, they will use pesticides to protect their crops from getting destroyed by herbal, insectile, or fungal based pests. In addition, many farmers utilize fertilizers to provide their crop with essential nutrients needed for growth. In this fourth blog of our five-part series, we will be exploring how gene editing can minimize our use of pesticides and fertilizers in wheat production.

New Wheat Varieties Decrease Need for Pesticides
Gene editing research is being conducted by scientists from all around the globe to make plants naturally resistant to various types of diseases and pests. Gao Caixia is a plant scientist leading the pursuit in CRISPR gene editing technology being utilized to transform the food industry. Gao has identified a way CRISPR technology could cripple a specific protein in wheat that makes it susceptible to powdery mildew, a harvest damaging fungal disease. Research found shows varieties resistant to powdery mildew, but tests are still being conducted. Additionally, researchers have started using CRISPR technology to edit the gene that makes wheat susceptible to the devastating Fusarium graminearum or head blight (head scab) fungal disease. Through gene editing, scientists are finding ways to make wheat naturally resistant to detrimental pests, decreasing our need/usage of pesticides in wheat production.

Decreasing Wheat Farmers Need for Fertilizers
Fertilizers provide essential nutrients to crops that otherwise may not be readily available within the planted ground. In some soils, a compound containing phosphorus called phytate is prevalent and can be broken down using an enzyme called phytase. When broken down by phytase, phytate releases phosphorus that can be then absorbed by wheat roots. A group of Pakistani researchers utilized a fungus called Aspergillus japonicus that produces phytase and then inserted this gene into wheat varieties. As a result, they created a wheat plant that can access soil phosphorus that was not available to it before. These gene edited wheat plants grew bigger and contained more of the phosphorus nutrient within it.

Additionally, similar gene editing research is being conducted to make plants more efficient in nitrogen uptake. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for many plant species that is readily available in the air but not so much in the ground. Currently, a biotech company out of Berkeley, California is utilizing gene editing technology to enhance a microbial bacteria’s ability to synthesize nitrogen in the air into a form that can be absorbed by wheat and corn. Furthermore, plant geneticist Xiangdong Fu has identified molecules called DELLA proteins that have inhibited nitrogen absorption abilities in modern crops. As a result, Fu has found a way to counteract DELLA proteins and encourage plants to absorb/metabolize nitrogen to support plant growth.

Future of Wheat: Fewer Pesticide and Fertilizer Use
Work being conducted by these scientists and researchers are paving the way in creating agriculture more sustainable as well as dampen its affect on the environment. Gene editing is working to decrease wheat’s usage/need of pesticides and fertilizer application on its fields. The future possibilities are truly endless through gene editing technology.

Stay tuned for my next blog providing an overview of gene editing’s benefits for the wheat industry. And, if you have not already, check out my first and second blog post of the five-part series covering The History of Wheat and Its Future and The Science Behind Gene Editing and Wheat Could Soon Be Gluten Free (Through Gene Editing).

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Cohen, Jon. “To Feed Its 1.4 Billion, China Bets Big on Genome Editing of Crops.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 29 July 2019,

Molteni, Megan. “Farmers Can Now Buy Designer Microbes to Replace Fertilizer.” Wired, Conde Nast, 2 Oct. 2018,

Mosheim, Roberto, and Richard Nehring. “Fertilizers & Pesticides.” USDA ERS – Fertilizers & Pesticides. 19 July 2018. United States Department of Agriculture. 29 July 2019 <>.

Nikolai Borisjuk, Olena Kishchenko, Serik Eliby, et al., “Genetic Modification for Wheat Improvement: From Transgenesis to Genome Editing,” BioMed Research International, vol. 2019, Article ID 6216304, 18 pages, 2019.

Rehm, Jeremy. “’Green Revolution’ Crops Bred to Slash Fertilizer Use.” Nature International Journal of Science, Nature Publishing Group, 15 Aug. 2018,