For a Glimpse of Food’s Future, Look to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Hannes Claeys checking the corn in the greenhouse, part of research on Crispr technology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The greenhouse seems much like any other greenhouse: lots of light, rows of plants reaching for the luminous ceiling, a bit sweaty, despite the chill of delayed spring outside. You wouldn’t know that this hothouse on the North Shore of Long Island has the potential to revolutionize plants we eat or use for fuel. And it wouldn’t be the first time major breakthroughs were nurtured here. This is a farm that’s got its science on.

We are at the 12-acre Upland agricultural field station that is part of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island’s North Shore, where cutting-edge experiments on seeds get their first chance to become The Next Big Thing in agriculture, perhaps increasing yield, pumping up nutrients or any number of desirable attributes that may someday land on your kitchen table or power your car or save the world.

Home to eight Nobel Prize winners, this not-for-profit lab and educational facility was founded in 1890 and is jammed with PhDs and grad students from all over the world. Belgian post-doc Hannes Claeys PhD, who is showing me around the facility, is one. CSHL has given the world critical breakthroughs in cancer, neuroscience and quantitative biology, as well as my interest: plant biology.

Far from being a cold and sterile environment, CSHL is on 117 sprawling acres along the picturesque shoreline of this former whaling center. Meticulously landscaped and shady with trees, it is a parklike environment.

Corn growing in the greenhouse.

Dr. Claeys studies corn, a familiar crop on Long Island, under Dr. David Jackson. He takes me into the lab where samples, slides and bottles vie for counter space and smart people carry trays of interesting samples past.

“We study plant genetics and we are asking some fundamental questions about how plants grow,” he tells me as he gets a slide under a microscope. “I came here to do applied work that can be immediately useful. One of the major questions is how many seeds form on a cob. The plant makes a decision on how many seeds to make. We try to identify the mechanisms and when that seed makes that decision so we can learn how to tweak the mechanism so that it produces more seeds on a cob.”

He shows me a magnified slide of a barely discernible cob in development. It is sliced to translucence so the researchers can visualize where genes are expressed in the nascent kernels. The researchers select genes with interesting expression patterns and by using a new-ish technique called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which I had to google, because not even the scientists could remember what it stood for and in five minutes you won’t either) can target them using what they call “molecular scissors” to edit the gene. It makes use of bacterial defense mechanisms against viruses. When a bacteria is invaded by a virus, it fights it but also takes bits of the virus into its equivalent of a memory bank. If the virus attacks again, the bacteria’s defenses will recognize it and cut it up. Now scientists can take the molecular scissors from the bacteria and use it to target a specific plant gene. The scissors either deactivate or otherwise modulate (“edit”) the gene. The results can be subtle and interesting and maybe valuable.

Injecting tobacco plants.

“We tell the molecular scissors to cut exactly where we want and then we have to observe so we can perhaps make a better version of the plant,” Claeys says. “This started just six years ago (the first major paper was published in 2012) and every month there are new papers. We are still at the first stages.”

This is not the interspecies genetic modifications (GMOs) that have the foodie world in an uproar. Here researchers are trying to unlock the mysteries of gene expression and let the plant’s own defenses create the mutations.

The roots of this technology go back to one of CSHL’s most famous residents, Barbara McClintock. McClintock won a Nobel prize in 1983 for work she had done years earlier. By studying corn mutations, she discovered that genes were not fixed but that they “jumped” and stimulated evolution. Despite the fact that her work paved the way for modern plant research, as a female in the sciences, she couldn’t find an environment that suited her until she came to CSHL in 1941. She spent the rest of her storied career (she passed in 1992) there.

“In the early part of the 20th century, Cold Spring Harbor was a pioneer in genetics, having discovered hybrid vigor which revolutionized agriculture. So, it was natural for Barbara McClintock to end up here. With private philanthropic support, the laboratory welcomed women scientists and this continues today,” says Dr. Bruce Stillman, president and CEO of the lab.

Diluting primers for PCR (prelimeries chain reaction).

Once the researchers have seeds with potential, they plant them at Upland. But unlike a North Fork farm, here every cob is carefully bagged and labeled; each has been pollinated with a specific tassel from another specific plant and must be duly recorded and protected from contamination by a different tassel.

Not all the experiments achieve the desired results. Claeys shows me dried corncobs from previous attempts to get an extra row of kernels. They are misfit maize, lumpy and uneven. CRISPR may eventually hold the key, but it takes many tries to achieve a viable product.

Dr. Jackson’s team’s work with corn is just one of a number of CSHL plant research projects that aim to improve the way we feed the world. Tomatoes, staple crops like rice and sorghum, how field crops try to reach light and palm oil and duckweed for use as bioenergy are some. Through partnerships with outside organizations, the scientists are able to explore the inner workings of nature and what they identify may eventually translate into commercial products.

These partnerships are driving exciting collaborations between researchers and plant breeders, says Dr. Jackson of his corn studies. “It’s a coming together of two research areas: the reductionist research biology meets with what plant breeders were doing all along,” he tells me. And with the advent of CRISPR, things can go much faster. “It’s an incredible tool because you can manipulate the genome. We have always been studying mutations, but up to now any mutation would happen by chance.”

The combination of research and education make this historic Long Island lab a hub for global science. It employs 1,100 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians and hosts more than 12,000 scientists from around the world each year on its campuses in Long Island and in Suzhou, China. The laboratory’s education arm also includes a publishing house, graduate school and programs for middle and high school students and teachers.

And while plant genetics still holds mysteries, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory does not have to be a mystery to its Long Island neighbors. There are many public events that do not require a PhD to attend. A visit to the lab that keeps Long Island on the forefront of science is a journey into the future of food plants.