New breeding methods and genome editing in agriculture
... producing more per hectare from existing agricultural land, and therefore protecting natural habitats and biodiversity
... or tolerance to pests and disease – requiring less chemical applications to protect crops, also leading to fewer trips to the field and thus reduced CO2 emissions
... such as water, fertilizers and pesticides to conserve resources, improve food quality and protect the environment
Genome editing in a nutshell
DNA breaks and repairs occur spontaneously and frequently in nature, causing natural mutations in cells. These natural mutations ensure that organisms can adapt to new or challenging conditions over time and therefore gradually change, which is why we see rich biodiversity today.
Genome editing replaces these 'spontaneous' mutations with precision, cutting the genome at a precise and predefined position and inducing the cell's own repair mechanism. This in turn influences the expression of certain traits of the plant.
Researchers can identify the function of plant genes that can make plants more robust and/or more productive. Once a gene is identified, genome editing can be used to rapidly enhance a crop plant's resistance to a disease, its climate tolerance, nutritional value, digestibility or taste.
The results of editing in the genome can be traced to a mutation – but you would not be able to determine whether it was achieved by conventional breeding methods, by genome editing, or had occurred naturally.
An enzyme (nuclease) is guided to the desired location in the genome.
The nuclease accurately cuts the DNA and creates a double-strand break.
The cell’s own repair system fuses the DNA back together.
Different genome editing technologies can be used, depending on the desired outcome
Depending on the crop or desired trait, different forms of genome editing can be used to enable versatility in the process. Some applications of genome editing can produce genetically modified plants by introducing foreign genes. Others, such as SDN-1 and SDN-2, do not involve any foreign genetic material. Zinc fingers, TALEN and CRISPR/Cas can all be applied in numerous ways. Given this, from a regulatory standpoint, it is important to evaluate the final product produced with these methods in a nuanced way.
Conventional plant breeding is a lengthy process that can, depending on the crop, take up to 25 years before an improved variety is available to farmers. It is also complex, as desirable characteristics (e.g., pest resistance) and undesirable properties (e.g. lower yield) can be taken forward from each crossing.
Genome editing allows researchers and breeders to introduce desirable characteristics by making small changes in a targeted way without incorporating undesirable properties – and that speeds up the development of new plant varieties by at least 20-30%. Speed is crucial, as climate change, pests and plant diseases are all fast-moving challenges for agriculture that require rapid solutions.
Current regulatory frameworks
Other countries have different regulations in place
The scientific consensus is that the risks associated with genome editing are equivalent to those of conventional breeding. This is reflected in the various regulatory policies around the world. While in many countries genome editing is tightly regulated, particularly across Europe, in others it is not.
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Overview all - click right for details
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Regulation in place, mostly case by case assessment by authorities, SDN-1 mostly not regulated
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Regulation in place, targeted mutagenesis regulated as genetic modification
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Regulation under revision
KWS is a committed member of the PILTON project and supports its three main goals:
- To provide a real-world concrete example of new breeding methods and their benefits.
- To go through the scientific steps to ensure fair access, better understand, and gain consensus for the plant breeding sector.
- To engage with political leaders, policy makers and the public on this important issue.