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Gene editing: why scientists need to be part of the conversation

With the UK no longer a member of the European Union, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has opened a public consultation on the regulation of gene editing in England. We spoke to Synthetic Biology Group Leader, Dr Nicola Patron about her view of the debate and why it’s important for scientists to share their expertise with policymakers.

In summer 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that organisms obtained by genome-editing techniques should be subject to the same regulations as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) that contain foreign DNA.

In response,14 countries - including the US, Canada, Brazil and Australia - issued a statement via the World Trade Organisation (WTO) advocating for functional, risk-based regulatory approaches that encourage innovation.

They warned that, without international alignment, differing‌ ‌regulatory oversights would impose barriers to global trade. The statement sent a strong message to governments about the need for innovative agricultural technologies to address urgent global challenges, such as food security and climate change.

This court ruling is now being appealed and the French agriculture ministry recently confirmed its opposition to the European Court ruling - a significant move considering France’s position as the EU’s largest agricultural producer.

With the UK no longer a member of the European Union, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has opened a public consultation on the regulation of gene editing in England.

As part of the discussion, our Synthetic Biology Group Leader, Dr Nicola Patron, presented to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on why EI supported the appeal of the ECJ’s ruling. We spoke to Nicola about her view of the debate and why it’s important for scientists to share their expertise with policymakers.

Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group Leader at the Earlham Institute (EI).

Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group Leader

Nicola, what do you think of the current gene editing ruling being appealed?

The urgent and interconnected challenges of food security, climate change, biodiversity loss and human health require the rapid development of healthy crops that improve the sustainability of agriculture.

Global crop yields need to increase by around 50% by 2050 to feed our growing population, which is made more difficult in a changing climate where growing conditions - as well as the spread of pests and pathogens - are already beginning to change.

Reducing the application of agrichemicals and preventing the conversion of existing land to agriculture is highly desirable as both have negative impacts on biodiversity. While reduction in waste and encouraging sustainable agricultural practices will also play a part, the development of nutritious, high-yielding crops that are resilient to stress and disease is critical.

In many countries, including the UK, scientists have started to use gene editing to accelerate the development of nutritious crops, as well as those that require fewer agrichemicals. Gene editing tools allow scientists to make changes as small as deleting a single letter of DNA in a specific gene, adapted from systems that exist in nature.

Gene edited crops have the same types of genetic changes as those developed using long-established conventional breeding technologies but are different to first-generation genetically modification technologies because they typically do not contain any new DNA.

The Patron lab at EI has proven that we can predictably engineer useful traits into a plant by making a very small change, perhaps one or two letters of DNA among the billions in the plant’s genome.

In the UK, 16,900 tonnes of pesticide are used on farms each year.

Image: A tractor spraying pesticides over a field of crops at sunset.

In your view, why was the ECJ ruling wrong on genome-editing?

The ruling by the ECJ that all organisms obtained by genome-editing techniques should be subject to the same regulations as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) was disappointing. Previously, the Advocate General made a clear distinction between mutagenesis (small changes to an organism's DNA) and transgenics (introducing DNA from another species).

Other technologies, including chemicals and radiation, have been used for many decades to introduce mutations, yet these plants are exempted from the genetic modification regulations.

Many crop varieties on the market are the product of mutation technologies. Genome-editing can be used to make exactly the same changes as these older, unregulated mutagenesis technologies but with less time and cost.

Countries around the world - including the US, Canada, Brazil and Australia - have all agreed that the products of the targeted mutagenesis enabled by genome editing tools do not require the regulatory process of GM, and are now using these technologies to develop products.

How would the current ECJ ruling affect your work?

While the ruling makes little difference to the use of this biotechnology in research - for example, to investigate the functions of genes - it means that the work of UK scientists, including the work that I am doing now, is far less likely to have an impact on UK agriculture.

While companies in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Australia are adopting these new genome editing technologies - and starting to apply the benefits of these plant engineering techniques to increase the sustainability and profitability of agriculture - they will not be applied in Europe.

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The urgent and interconnected challenges of food security, climate change, biodiversity loss and human health require the rapid development of healthy crops that improve the sustainability of agriculture.

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How is genome-editing different from previous plant breeding technologies, including GM?

The goal of crop improvement is to introduce beneficial traits. For example, we might want to combine resistance to emerging diseases, increased nutritional value and other consumer and agricultural traits into plants with a high-yielding genetic background.

Some of this can be done by traditional breeding. However, as this often makes large-scale genetic changes and sometimes introduces undesirable genes that reduce yield. Breeding can therefore be a very slow and expensive process.

In the mid 20th Century, humans began using X-rays and chemicals to induce mutations, and then went on to screen these mutant populations for individual plants with useful traits. This process has brought thousands of new varieties to market. However, each new variety also requires years of development because, alongside the beneficial mutation, there will be hundreds of unwanted mutations.

In the 1980s, scientists developed technologies to bring in the specific gene or genes of interest without making additional unwanted changes. This became known as genetic modification (GM). GM crops are now grown on 185 million hectares of land, by 18 million farmers worldwide, and they have had many benefits.

For example, pest-resistant crops have reduced the number of applications of chemical pesticides, helping to protect the biodiversity of the wider ecosystem. In countries where weeding may previously have been done by hand, herbicide-tolerant crops have made significant improvements to farmers’ income and security.

Genome editing technologies allow us to make just a few changes to the existing DNA at very specific sequences. Foreign DNA does not need to be inserted and the end product may be indistinguishable from one made using older, unregulated technologies like chemical mutagenesis.

It enables us to very rapidly transfer knowledge about gene function, gained from decades of plant science, into useful products for agriculture

Insect pests such as aphids are responsible for spreading diseases such as Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus among cereal crops.

Aphids, which spread diseases, on an ear of wheat.

Why did you recently spend your time talking to parliamentarians about gene-editing, and how did you find this experience?

As legislators, MPs have a duty to ensure that their decisions are founded on sound science, are firmly in the national interest and stand the test of time. If public opinion is not well informed by scientific evidence, tensions may arise, meaning that MPs must balance public opinion with analysis and advice from those with the required expertise.

Therefore, it’s essential for the government to hear directly from scientists and take into account evidence to base their legislative decisions. We have all seen the importance of science in public policy making during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Recently, I met with several parliamentarians and I presented to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee about the uses of biotechnology in agriculture. They were knowledgeable of the wider issues around agriculture and farming in Europe and the UK, and very interested in hearing about the latest scientific advances, including technical details.

There are not many MPs with a scientific background so it was important to make sure the information I gave was in plain language with plenty of examples they could relate to. As a scientist, it was valuable to be asked challenging questions that demonstrated their wide range of professional backgrounds and outlooks.

Sometimes pressure groups who oppose gene editing for agricultural purposes cite safety and consumer choice as reasons not to allow gene editing techniques. There is no evidence of harm associated with editing crop genomes. Gene editing is simply a way to speed up the evolutionary process that can be achieved with slower, more conventional crop breeding techniques that would be considered by most people as ‘natural’. I would advocate that safety and consumer choice are among the main reasons in favour of gene editing.

Other countries across the globe are using gene editing to enhance the nutritional value of produce, to maximise yield and to reduce the added inputs. If the government chooses to allow the commercial application of gene editing techniques, farmers in England may be able to grow crops that require less water, fertilisers and pesticides in the future. This would enable consumers in England to benefit and allow farmers and food producers in England to compete in global food markets.

Hayley London

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Hayley London

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