Gene edited crops arrive in the UK!


The observant skeptic might have noticed a brief flurry of media activity at the end of May that discussed a field trial of gene edited crops that is being conducted at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire (1, 2).

You might think, “So what”? There have been loads of field trials on genetically modified crops over the years, why is this news?

Not so, this trial is different as the devil is in its details. This is a trial of both genetically modified (GM) crops AND a trial of gene edited (GE) crops.

This is the first UK field trial of GE crops so although the difference might seem minor it could be extremely important for the future of scientific research and crop improvement in the UK and throughout Europe.

In general, GM involves the addition of foreign genes to your crop of interest. Classically this has included genes from bacteria that confer herbicide or insect resistance. However more recently has included the production of Golden Rice (3) and purple tomatoes (4) both of which have potential health benefits.

All skeptics will know that the debate surrounding the use of GM has been extremely controversial and currently the growth of these crops is prevented throughout the EU. The regulation of these crops is complex but unfortunately in the court of public opinion the positive case for the use of GM has been mostly lost due to the activity of those organisations that fundamentally oppose this technology.

Gene Editing is similar to breeding…but better.

GE is subtly but importantly different to GM. This technique allows the precise modification of genes that are already in the organism without the long term addition of a foreign gene (5). In turn this could alter some growth attribute of the plant. This allows scientists to use their knowledge of plant biology to predict how this alteration will alter crop growth, test it in the lab before applying for a field trial license if the results look good.

Importantly GE is a modern cousin of mutagenesis, a process that has been the genetic basis of conventional breeding throughout the history of agriculture. Over millennia humans have selected new crop varieties that are more nutritious or better suited to different growth conditions, the results of which is the food we eat every day.

Conventional breeding relies on random mutagenesis that ultimately takes many years to develop new varieties. GE allows scientists to target these specific mutations to improve crop growth and therefore remove the years that breeding can take. Importantly the end-products of GE are essentially identical to the products of conventional breeding so why should they be regulated differently?

A figure depicting the difference between genetic modification and genome editing as described in the text

The newly approved field trial at Rothamsted is really a test-case for the regulation of GE crops. The scientists have produced varieties of the potential oil crop Camelina sativa that will allow them to better understand lipid metabolism. At this time the crops won’t be used for food or feed but critically the UK Government Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has determined that this GE crop does not need to be regulated like GM crops, mostly because it contains NO foreign DNA (6).

This indicates that in future ACRE will regulate GE crops differently to GM crops and therefore might offer future opportunities for scientists and breeders to develop potentially useful crop varieties.

Unsurprisingly the EU is in regulatory limbo

This decision comes in the light of continued EU delays in a ruling that will decide the fate for the growth of GE crops across Europe. Recently there have been promising noises coming from the EU but as yet this decision has not appeared (7). The decision by ACRE shows that, like Brazil, Argentina, Sweden and the USA (8), the UK has a progressive and evidence-based position for the use of GE crops and is potentially great news for scientific research.

Skeptics: get the facts!

Over the coming months I predict that we will hear plenty about the debate about GE crops so I urge skeptics to arm themselves with facts about the differences between GM and GE. This will allow us to inform our family, friends and colleagues about the benefits of GE and that it really uses the same technique as conventional breeding but is just much cheaper, quicker and more precise!

Promising times ahead for the UK plant science community.

 

Dr Geraint Parry, PhD

Geraint is the national coordinator for GARNet, which is a network that supports uptake of new technologies and knowledge dissemination amongst UK and international plant scientists. He is the science communication manager of the EU INDEPTH COST Action (https://www.brookes.ac.uk/indepth/) as well as being the secretary for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee. He tweets for GARNet from @GARNetweets and personally @liverpoolplants

 

 

(1)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/where-gm-meets-ge

(2)- https://t.co/G77fhPCc9S

(3)- http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=16278

(4)- http://www.norfolkplantsciences.com/

(5)- The process of gene editing does involve the addition of a foreign gene but is removed during preparation for field trials.

(6)- https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/acre-advice-application-for-a-trial-of-gm-camelina-18r0801

(7)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/articles/edits-mutations-and-gm

(8)- https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/07/gene-editing-ruling-crops-plants

 

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