Jul. 28, 2014
Scientists are urging EU policymakers to adopt a proportionate approach to a potentially revolutionary new plant breeding technology in the wake of the effective block on GM crops in Europe.
Advances in sequencing the genome of the wheat plant has brought the science of ‘genome editing’ a big step nearer to producing ground-breaking new traits which could benefit farmers and consumers.
Last week, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) published a draft sequence of the wheat genome.
IWGSC described the development as a ‘major landmark towards’ obtaining a complete reference sequence of the wheat genome. It estimates that the full genome sequence will be available within three years.
It said the breakthrough means plant breeders will have high quality tools at their disposal to accelerate breeding programs and identify how genes control complex traits such as yield, grain quality, disease, pest resistance and or abiotic stress tolerance.
Prof Huw Jones, from Rothamsted Research’s Centre for Crop Genetic Improvement, said, even though the work was incomplete, the publication of the draft sequence, was ‘hugely significant’. “What is there will give scientists and plant breeders a huge leg up in knowing the DNA sequence,” he said. He added this would open up opportunities in three main areas:
--Identifying new markers for the existing technology of ‘marker-assisted selection’.
--Identifying genes for new genome editing technologies.
-- To aid ‘conventional’ GM crop breeding.
While marker-assisted breeding is already well-established, the greatest potential lies with genome editing, a technology which deploys various tools to alter a single nucleotide. This gives scientists the ability to effectively ‘switch off’ genes to breed favourable traits, through mutations, such as pesticide or fungicide resistance or the removal of genes causing allergies or intolerance. "This is hugely exciting," Prof Jones said. "It is likely to be less controversial than GM because you are making small changes to the genome rather than adding big chunks of DNA from totally different species." "You are going in with some fine tools and altering the letters of the DNA that is already there. You are not leaving any footprint behind. All of those tools come away – all you leave is a little stitch in the genome."
However, scientists fear the technology could be stifled by the EU regulatory process, amid uncertainty about how the new technology will be classified. The technology is still largely at the research stage, although a herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape variety, developed by Cibus, has been approved by the Canadian food safety authorities. It is unclear whether the European Commission will consider gene editing as an example of conventional GMs. The regulatory barriers to GM crops are significant, resulting in a virtual block on the technology over the past decade or so. But at least, in this scenario, it would at least fit into an existing regulatory framework, although new guidance would be needed.
Prof Jones said it could be even more complicated if some examples of the technology were considered as ‘mutation breeding’, which is currently excluded from the GMO regulations, potentially requiring a whole new regulation. Brussels is currently looking at the issue and is expected to report within the next six-12 months. "My view is that they will not revisit the primary legislation (directive 2001/18/EC) but will offer guidance as to exactly how plants made using these techniques fit into the current definition of a GMO," he said. "We need a regulation which is fit for purpose and covers the risks inherent in the technology but is also consistent," Prof Jones said. "If a herbicide-tolerant crop has an environmental impact – and I’m not saying it does – it doesn’t matter how you make it. That impact should be analysed and risk-assessed as the characteristic per se, and not because of the technology," he said.
Professor Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University, made a similar plea at a press briefing on Monday. "I would like a sensible, proportionate, evidence-based system for everything," Professor Leyser said.
"There is no way that legislation based on processes is ever going to keep up with the introduction of new ways of doing things. You need a more robust regulatory system that is immune to the way that you do the changes."
Similar to GM
Environmental campaigners demanded a precautionary approach.The Green party/European Free Alliance group in the European parliament said: “Gene editing raises similar concerns as [genetic modification] as regards intellectual property rights and the impact on traditional and organic farming models. "As such, it would make sense for gene editing to be covered by the same regulatory regime as existing GMOs." Natalie Bennett, the UK’s Green party leader, said: "The Green party believes that with these new technologies, with their often unknown side effects and impacts, it is important to maintain the precautionary principle. These are genetic modifications using new techniques; they should be treated accordingly."