A startup called PairWise is out to help change the way we eat by making fruits and vegetables more appealing. The company is zeroing in on traits that may deter people from consuming produce and tweaking those traits using CRISPR gene editing.
Tom Adams, PairWise cofounder and CEO, shared details about the company and its products in an interview. Modifying a gene that encodes for a given trait either eliminates or alters that trait; in the case of fruits and vegetables, say, the bitterness of mustard greens or the seeds in blackberries.
The CRISPR technique PairWise uses involves manipulating genes that exist naturally in a given species’ genome.
“The changes PairWise has made in our greens are no different than what can be achieved through conventional breeding, contain no foreign DNA, and therefore are not considered GMOs,” Adams said.
He wants PairWise to take a more proactive and transparent approach.
“We’re going to be very clear about the processes we’re using to create the products, and it’s your choice whether you like the benefits or you’re worried about the technology,” he said.
The first product PairWise will bring to market is a milder-tasting version of mustard greens. The company’s market research found that people often ended up buying romaine lettuce even after saying they’d prefer kale or another green because of their greater nutritional value.
“People want healthy salads, but they keep buying romaine because they’re used to the flavor,” Adams said.
Mustard greens, Adams told me, are a relative of kale, but they taste like horseradish when you bite into them. PairWise used CRISPR-Cas12a to edit the green’s genome and remove one of those components.
PairWise kale will retain all of the leafy green’s nutritional properties, but have a texture more like lettuce, making it easier to prepare and eat.
“Your fingers are all red when you’re done with a few of them, and if there’s not a trash can nearby you don’t know what to do with the pit.” I asked him how it’s possible to grow a cherry-or any other stone fruit, like plums, peaches, or apricots-without the pit, as it connects to the fruit’s stem and is its lifeline to the tree.
“It actually still has a seed in it, but the seed has lost its hard outer shell. There’s still that nutritious plant embryo that’s normally protected by the shell, we’re just making it so it’s all edible.” If they succeed, eating pitless cherries will be a different experience altogether; isn’t having to remove the pit the only thing keeping us from stuffing handfuls of the scrumptious fruit into our mouths at once?
The fruit is highly sensitive to changes in moisture and can only thrive in a dry climate; this specificity and the fact that the fruit needs to be shipped from the far northwest corner of the country pushes up its price.
PairWise is also trying to alter the way blackberries grow.
Be it softer kale, pitless cherries, or thornless bushes, PairWise’s mission is to create a healthier world by taking away barriers to eating fresh produce.
“We’re interested in anything that moves the needle on the fact that only 10 percent of Americans eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables,” Adams said.
How likely is engineered produce to play an instrumental role in changing consumers’ habits, or in attracting a previously-veggie-averse demographic? People who already buy and eat kale on a regular basis may opt for a smoother kale 2.0, but people who have never bought kale may not be so easily swayed by a newfangled version of the green.
Adams believes there’s a consumer base out there who will benefit from products like PairWise’s. Physical traits of produce may be one barrier that deters people from buying them, but cost is equally important. Production of PairWise greens, he added, is actually quite cost-competitive with other types of salad greens.
Helping people make healthier dietary choices is just one benefit that CRISPR could bring to produce. Its possibilities are wide-ranging, as evidenced by PairWise’s work to create fruit trees that can grow in different climates and yield food that’s easier to harvest. CRISPR holds all sorts of possibilities for a new frontier of engineered foods.