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Genome editing of crops may be restricted by EU rules, warn scientists

 

Field of Canola in U.K.

Canola in a field in Rother Valley, Sussex. A genome edited version of canola was announced by US-based firm Cibus. Photograph: Penny Tweedie/Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Genome editing of crops may be restricted by EU rules, warn scientists” was written by Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st July 2014 16.21 UTC

A fledgling technology to manipulate the genes of crops in order to make them less susceptible to disease and more productive is at risk of falling foul of the European Union’s genetic modification rules, scientists warned on Monday.

Genome editing is different to genetic modification, because it does not usually involve transplanting genes from one plant or species to another, but on pinpointing the genetic mutations that would occur naturally through selective breeding. This means that, in most cases, it mimics natural actions and does not require the wholesale transformation of genes with which GM is often associated.

Genome editing typically involves finding the part of a plant genome that could be changed to render it less vulnerable to disease, or resistant to certain herbicides, or increase yields or other desirable traits. Researchers use “molecular scissors” to break apart the genome and repair it, which is a process that occurs naturally when plants are under attack from diseases and can throw up new mutations that enable the plant to survive future attacks. This evolutionary process can effectively be speeded up now that it is possible to examine plant genomes in detail in laboratories, and create mechanisms through which the relevant genes can be altered very precisely, without the need to import DNA from other organisms, one of the key criticisms of GM foods.

“Using these methods to introduce new variations, our ability to create new genes is nearly limitless,” said Sophien Kamoun, of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Research Centre in Norwich. “We can be much more precise [than with conventional plant breeding].”

As the processes mimic those of nature, but speeded up, the end result is the same as if the sort of selection routinely practised by farmers for centuries had been used, scientists said. Huw Jones, of Rothamsted Research, said: “These plants are indistinguishable from those that would occur through selective breeding.” Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said gene editing could offer an alternative to GM that could be much more palatable to consumers.

But green campaigners are far from convinced. The European parliament’s Green party told the Guardian: “While the biotech sector has sought to trumpet the benefits and precision of gene editing, compared to existing GM technology, there are many uncertainties as regards the impact of gene-edited organisms on the environment and health.”

The technology is very new, as the first commercial application of it in a plant for human consumption was approved this spring, when the US-based Cibus announced an edited version of canola. Scientists believe there is huge potential for the technology because it avoids the slower, scattergun approach of selective breeding.

It has only become possible to edit plant genes in the past few years following decades of work on mapping genomes and inventing ways in which they can be precisely altered.

Under EU laws, however, it is unclear whether gene editing should be treated in the same way as genetic modification. GM crops are effectively banned in Europe, and licences to experiment in GM are rare and very expensive. In some other parts of the world, most importantly the US, the regulations are much lighter and GM food faces few barriers to animal and human consumption.

The European commission is expected to offer guidance on the technology soon, perhaps next year, but it is not clear whether that could involve a ruling on whether and how the current regulations should apply, or a commitment to further study with the possibility of new regulations. The commission did not respond to requests from the Guardian for comment.

Jones said the lack of clarity on the legal status of gene editing techniques was hampering research and potential investment, particularly in Europe. “Clearly lawyers need to look at it,” he said.

Leyser said the EU should base its regulations on the properties of crops that have been altered or selectively bred, rather than focusing on the process by which this is achieved, as happens at present.

 

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