Genome editing can help us find solutions to the global food crisis and prepare for the impacts of climate change. However, a recent EU court ruling might lead to innovative crop development slipping through the fingers of European producers.
An answer to the problems of global food production or a violation the natural order of things? Depending on whom you ask, the opinion on genome editing can vary from a dream come true to a sci-fi nightmare.
Genome editing refers to adding, removing, or altering small segments of the genome of an organism. Unlike genetic modification (GM), the method doesn’t introduce foreign DNA to the genome, but instead makes changes of the sort commonly found in nature.
Alan Schulman, research professor at Luke, sees genome editing as nothing less than a way to help head off an impending global food crisis due to climate change. Currently, climate change is both accelerating the spread of diseases and causing rapidly changing and fluctuating growing environments, for which breeders need plant traits not found among their current elite varieties, in order to avoid the risk of crop failures.
Precision breeding by genome editing could be used to generate crops with, for example, better nutritional value or reduced allergenicity, or to tailor crops to specific environments.
“Genome editing enables us to modify a particular gene that responds to drought or a virus, and make the plant resistant to that stress,” Schulman explains. “This not only protects our harvest but also provides us with a biological solution, as it saves us from using toxic sprays.”
The difference between editing and GM, Schulman explains, can be illustrated by how one changes the colour of a flower. To introduce an entirely new colour to the species, GM could add the gene for an enzyme from another species. When the genome is edited, the colour is changed by altering a gene already in the genome in a way that would be possible in nature, too.
From tomato softness to cattle infections
The technique applies to smaller issues than climate change as well. Schulman notes that if we know which part of the gene controls fruit softening, it can be modified easily and quickly to make the fruit last fresh for longer, helping tackle food waste.
Genome editing can also help improve both animal welfare and resilience. Luke’s research professor Johanna Vilkki points out that knowledge revealed by gene editing in experimental cell lines on how certain gene variants make a cow resistant to infection could later be used in breeding decisions and would eventually lead to improved resistance in the population.
Both Vilkki and Schulman emphasise that the changes that occur through genome editing could just as well appear naturally; it would just take various generations and decades, particularly in the case of animals. Another problem is the uncontrollability of possible side effects, whereas genome editing is very precise, because it only affects the characteristic it’s intended to.
Schulman thinks that the technique isn’t fully understood by the public due to the way people tend to see DNA.
“When people say, ‘it’s in the DNA’, they deem it fixed and unchangeable,” he explains. “What they don’t realise is that our DNAs change all the time, and that variations such as introduced by genome editing are common and natural.”
Dynamite instead of hooks and lures
What’s hindering the development and implementation of genome editing in Europe is a recent European Court of Justice ruling. In July, the court decided that organisms obtained by modern forms of mutagenesis are not exempt from the Union’s GM legislation. In practice, companies wanting to make use of genome editing would have to go through the same risk assessment and authorisation processes as with GM.
Schulman and Vilkki believe, as do more than 75 European plant and life sciences research centres and institutes that have signed a position paper opposing the ruling, that comparing editing to modification is simply incorrect. GM gets a lot of bad press due to its perceived unpredictability, but both professors are adamant that as editing is both more precise and indistinguishable from the results of natural processes, it shouldn’t fall under the same category.
Schulman compares the ruling to allowing fishing by dynamite but forbidding hooks and lures.
“With the older mutagenesis methods that aren’t regulated by the EU, you mutate many genes at random to change one of them, which is like throwing an explosive in the water whilst trying to catch a particular fish,” he describes. “Editing is like fishing with a lure, using just the right bait for the kind of fish you’re after.”
The court’s decision, as Schulman and Vilkki point out, makes it impossible for small companies to go through the costly processes. This gives only large corporations, like Monsanto, a monopoly in developing the method. The experts note that as the results of gene editing can’t be tracked, the EU would need to de facto ban imports from countries allowing editing to ensure no such products enter the market.
Both Schulman and Vilkki hope to see the EU court revisit its decision and come up with a new regulatory framework – based on science.
Text: Anne Salomäki