Scientists might demonstrate the potential benefits of editing plant genes by altering cassava so it no longer poisons and cripples people in the Southern Hemisphere, California microbiologist Michael Gomez suggested this week at CRISPRcon, a conference in Boston focused on the potential of gene editing techniques. Cassava (usually known in North America by its product, tapioca) is an important crop and food source in Africa, Brazil and elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s very drought hardy, so is especially critical in regions when drought destroys other crops.

Gomez works with scientists at the Innovative Genomics Institute who are experimenting with CRISPR-cas9 gene editing for crops. He reports reported isolating two cassava enzyme genes – identified as CYP79D – responsible for the plant’s excessive cyanide production in its tubers – enough to cause severe nerve damage for people who consume cassava from which the cyanide has been thoroughly removed. He has succeeded in removing the CYP79D genes from cassava cells and has “generated a whole plant from a single (gene edited) cell. He says he is now developing successful cultivars and measuring the resultant cyanide residue in his altered plants.