Freedom to tinker The UK is liberalising the rules around gene-edited crops
n the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU, a change is coming. On 29 September, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that by the end of 2021, researchers planning to conduct field trials of gene-edited plants will no longer be required to submit lengthy and expensive risk assessments. Many scientists believe that the change will bolster the nation’s capabilities in food-security research amid rapid environmental change. The UK had previously followed the EU’s policy on gene-edited crops, which placed them under the same stringent regulations as genetically engineered crops. However, there are important distinctions between the two. Traditional genetic engineering inserts large sections of DNA from one plant species, known as ‘transgenes’, into another plant’s genome. Gene editing, in contrast, allows researchers to make precise, targeted changes using the plant’s own DNA (transgenes are never involved). ‘Under the EU regulations, if you’ve made small edits to a gene, you have to treat it like it’s a genetically modified organism,’ says Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at the Rothamsted Research Centre. ‘However, modern gene-editing techniques – such as CRISPR/Cas9 – allow for much more precise alterations to DNA, reducing some of the concerns that surrounded genetic-engineering.’ Policy has not kept pace, researchers argue.
Halford and many other crop scientists believe that gene-editing is merely an acceleration of the way plants naturally breed – a process of gradual genetic change that humans have long taken advantage of through selective breeding. ‘A lot of the edits that we’re making might take place during natural reproduction,’ he says. ‘DNA mutations occur all the time – without them, you don’t get evolution.’
Cathie Martin, professor at the John Innes Research Centre agrees. ‘A lot of the gene-edited changes could occur naturally, but it would take a lot of time and effort to screen them, identify them and integrate them into crops,’ she says. ‘With gene editing, you’re accelerating that process, saving huge amounts of time, effort and money.’
Halford’s team is working on gene-editing certain crops to ensure that they produce less of the carcinogenic substance acrylamide, which can form during cooking. They have used the CRISPR/ Cas9 system to knock out some of the genes involved in acrylamide production. Similarly, Martin’s team is working to increase the amount of ascorbate, a precursor for vitamin C, by gene editing tomatoes. Such techniques, if commercialised, could help to solve nutritional issues and improve food security.
Under the previous EU regulations, research and commercialisation of genetically modified crops – which applied to gene-edited varieties – was slow to get off the ground. ‘There has been a strong disinclination to fund anything that involves a genetically modified crop,’ says Martin. Halford adds that, because of the regulatory obstacles, the EU hasn’t had an application to cultivate a genetically modified crop in the past ten years. The UK policy changes come with a potential reduction in financial risk for investors. ‘When we’re talking about something that is nature-equivalent in gene editing, I think it will at least allow funders to look more favourably,’ says Martin.
‘Researchers and developers need to be confident that what they’re working on could have potential application and commercialisation. There needs to be an enabling regulatory framework for research to get off the ground,’ adds Halford.
Of course, concerns about unnatural tinkering with
8 . GEOGRAPHICAL
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