Meet a CRISPR crop scientist on World CRISPR Day

By AfS Staff

October 20, 2021

Happy World CRISPR Day!  Meet Nicholas Karavolias, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in the Plant and Microbial Biology Department. He works at the Innovative Genomics Institute where he uses CRISPR/Cas in his research.

What excites you about CRISPR? 

So many things!

I think CRISPR/Cas technology gives us [researchers] a huge asset in being able to explore genes in an accurate and efficient way. Being able to use CRISPR/Cas9 as a research tool has facilitated a rapid expansion of our fundamental understanding of plant biology and will continue to do so.

I think CRISPR is also a second chance in plant biotechnology. Potent technologies that preceded gene editing have been poorly regarded by the public. The verdict is not fully out on whether the world is ready for CRISPR crops, but largely it seems that we are trending in a direction that is favorable. I can imagine many CRISPR crops arriving on the world’s dinner plate someday. Crops that are climate-smart, more nutritious, more delicious…

Why did you become a researcher of plant biology?

My interest in plants started when I was young. When I was 6, maybe, my dad was planting tomatoes in our backyard and showing me the seeds from which his little seedlings emerged. I loved the idea that something so tiny would become a big, fruit-bearing plant. That night at dinner we were eating sausages which happened to have whole black peppercorns in them. My mom watched me pluck out the peppercorns and save them on my plate and later watched me plant them in the garden expecting to grow the first ever sausage plant. The next morning, I was so excited to find sausages tied to cucumber plants and a dad who was very happy with himself.

This is all to say that I’ve always been curious about plants, especially the ones that provide us with food. My grandparents were farmers in the country of Cyprus and my parents run a take-out lunch restaurant. In a way, my research in plant biology is just another way of keeping up my family’s tradition in food and agriculture.

What’s the focus of your current research?

I study stomatal development and physiology in rice. I use CRISPR/Cas and other genetic tools to understand the genes that regulate the development and operation of stomata. Increasing our understanding of the genes underlying stomata can enable the development of rice varieties that are able to conserve water and withstand drought without any losses in yield. My work includes time spent at the bench in laboratory, in the greenhouse and sometimes even the field.

What are some of the misperceptions that people have about scientists working with biotech tools like CRISPR?

I think there is a common misconception that the scientists working with advanced technologies like CRISPR/Cas are corporate shills looking to turn the largest profit off the backs of small-scale farmers. This may be because large, corporate forces in agriculture have been centered in conversations about biotechnology, but they do not represent all scientists working with biotechnological tools. I think many folks would also be surprised to learn how many farmers across many nations and demographics also embrace the use of CRISPR.

There are lots of people — scientists and farmers alike — that are sincerely invested in pursuing CRISPR applications that further equity, environmental sustainability and wellness broadly.

If you could use CRISPR to do something for humankind, what would it be?

I don’t think that’s really up to me! I think “humankind” gets to decide for itself what it wants to use CRISPR for. I think more than anything I am motivated by the democratization and equitable distribution of this revolutionary technology to maximize the reach and good that CRISPR/Cas may achieve. I would love to see widespread use of CRISPR/Cas to streamline local and systemic agricultural reform. Of course, this is a lot to ask for, but one can dream!

When you’re not in the lab what do you get up to?

I definitely love to keep busy taking advantage of all the Bay Area has to offer. I roller skate, dance, run, hike, backpack, read lots of fiction, spend quality time with friends and bake my way through cookbooks.

OK, final fun question: What would be your favorite frivolous trait to edit in a crop?

Hmmm. Well, you know when you eat a lot of pineapple and your tongue kind of starts to burn? I think I would try to get rid of that in pineapples. Not that it has really ever slowed me down but I would appreciate a less painful pineapple experience.

Image: 3D illustration of DNA helix. Shutterstock/ Yurchanka Siarhei