Gene editing: it is now easier to test cultures edited by CRISPR in England


Genetically modified crops grown in trial in Argentina

MARCELO MANERA / AFP via Getty Images

Crops that are genetically modified for environmental and nutritional benefits will be easier for researchers to test in field trials across England under legislative changes later this year.

The UK government has also said it is planning future legislation so that genetically modified crops and livestock that mimic the effects of natural selection are treated differently from genetically modified (GM) products, a step that would allow the food to be sold in British supermarkets for the first time. time.

Gene editing allows the DNA of an organism to be precisely targeted, often using CRISPR technology. This means that gene editing does not involve inserting whole genes or genes from other species, as other GM crops can carry. A recent example that was tested in the real world involved wheat modified to reduce the risk of a carcinogenic compound being formed when bread made from wheat is toasted.

Proponents say such modified crops simply speed up natural breeding techniques and could provide environmental benefits. For example, growing potatoes genetically modified to be resistant to late blight would reduce the use of pesticides.

The British approach signals a post-Brexit divergence with the European Union, which regulates genetically modified organisms in the same way as GM organisms, effectively prohibiting them from being cultivated and sold. The UK took over this regulation when it left the EU.

Today, the first step to move away from this regulation is modest following a consultation. The government will remove the licensing hurdles that laboratories face when starting a field trial of genetically modified crops, a crucial exercise to see how well they grow under more realistic conditions.

The change in England, which is to be undertaken with the help of secondary legislation before the end of the year, is expected to save around £ 10,000 per trial and reduce the two-month waiting period before the start trials. However, researchers will still need to inform the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Scotland and the rest of the UK may decide on different rules.

Wendy Harwood of the John Innes Center says, “We hope he [the rule changes] will facilitate the observation of these plants in the field, which will allow scientists to identify which ones to exploit.

The British government believes that the rule changes are less important than the declaration of intent they send, to unlock investment in genetically modified crops.

“It is vitally important. This only applies to research and development, but it’s a first step, ”says Nigel Halford of Rothamsted Research in the UK, which is testing genetically modified wheat. “If you want to get plant breeders to invest in technology, they have to be sure that their products will have a market. “

Today’s rule changes will not allow the sale of “authorizations” for genetically modified foods. Yet that also looks set to change. The UK government has said it is planning a longer-term review of GMO regulations, which would see primary legislation change the definition of GMOs to exempt genetically modified crops – and livestock, too – if they had. could be developed by traditional breeding. This could apply to the whole of the UK. It remains to be decided whether the products should be labeled as genetically modified.

The government may be facing an uphill battle over public attitude, but it remains to be seen whether it will live up to the outcry of two decades ago when protesters tore up trials of GM crops and opponents called them “Frankenfoods”. Of the 6,440 responses to the new consultation, 88% of individuals and 64% of businesses said they believe genetically modified crops should continue to be regulated as GMOs. “It must be small steps,” says Harwood of what happens next. “Food security is essential. “

Genetically modified foods are already sold in some countries, including the United States, and this month saw the launch of tomatoes in Japan which appear to be the first food modified by CRISPR, a newer technique than that used in products. Americans. The EU is also considering rethinking its stance on genetically modified crops, with a review launched in April calling existing rules on GMOs “unsuitable for their purpose” as the regulations predate the development of the technology. CRISPR.

“We [the UK] can finish a little early. Technology has evolved so far and regulations just need to catch up, ”says Harwood. She expects UK staple crops such as grains, wheat, barley, brassicas and potatoes to be future candidates for GM crops, but says regulatory changes mean we probably won’t eat them soon. “We probably wait a few years before we see these products on the shelves,” she says.

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