New breeding technologies in the Plant Sciences

01 November 2017 - By: Sarah Jose

New breeding technologies in the Plant Sciences

CRISPR-edited cabbage
The conference dinner featured CRISPR-edited cabbage. Photo: Sarah Jose


By Sarah Jose, Global Plant Council

New gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 have the potential to revolutionise the fields of biology and medicine, from cancer treatments to biofuels. On the 7th and 8th of July, 70 researchers and policymakers from 17 countries met to discuss the application and implications of these technologies in plant breeding at a SEB satellite meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, organised in collaboration with the Global Plant Council and GARNet.

Top tips for success

Gene-editing technologies are the latest development in thousands of years of plant breeding, enabling the rapid but precise modification of genomes. While these techniques are theoretically relatively simple to use, in reality they can be challenging to apply effectively. Thankfully for the workshop’s delegates, several of the speakers explained how they had successfully used the CRISPR-Cas9 system in a wide range of plant species, and gave some top tips and resources to tackle the potential challenges.

Like many of the speakers, prolific genome editor Laurence Tomlinson (The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, UK) has developed a suite of new tools to help other researchers. She recommended combining manual and web-based tools to design guide RNA, which specifies the target to the CRISPR-Cas9 system, and said that she’d had better results when combining the use of two guide RNA sequences for a single target gene. She also recommended carefully considering which of the various Cas9 alleles to use, as they can break the target DNA in different ways, leading to varying types of mutation.

Regulatory challenges

Gene-editing technologies often do not fit into current policies regulating the genetic modification of plants because they can be used to produce varieties that are indistinguishable from those generated by conventional breeding methods, and therefore cannot be tested. Despite the rapid progress in the use of new breeding technologies around the world, many researchers and crop breeding companies are unwilling to begin using tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 because of uncertainty over their regulation. No-one wants to start a multi-year plant breeding project only to find they won’t be allowed to grow their new crop varieties at the end of it.

At the workshop, we were given an insight into the current and potential regulation of new breeding technologies around the world. Wayne Parrot (University of Georgia) gave an entertaining tour of the complex regulatory landscape of the USA, which involves three different federal agencies who all have partial control over new breeding technologies, depending on the way the gene editing is achieved. We heard from Barry Pogson (Australian National University) how subtly different readings of a 1996 policy defining genetic modification in New Zealand meant that although new breeding technologies were initially not regulated as GMOs, the decision was later overruled.

Piet van der Meer (Ghent University) explained that, for many countries, the specific wording of regulations is important; for example, does a “novel” trait mean that it has not been seen before in nature, or that it is highly unlikely to arise naturally? Researchers in the European Union (EU) are still waiting for a decision on CRISPRCas9 regulation, which has been delayed by fierce lobbying by both sides. Until then, European countries are free to interpret the 2001 legislation on genetic modification regarding new breeding technologies as they see fit, although most have not expressed an official decision.

One promising exception is Sweden. Workshop organiser and Umeå University researcher Stefan Jansson worked with the Swedish Board of Agriculture to receive a positive outcome; some gene-edited plants are currently not considered to be covered by GMO regulation in Sweden. Government representative Staffan Eklöf walked us through their decision-making process, which resulted in the key decision that, if the final gene-edited plant contains a mutation that could have arisen naturally, it should receive equal treatment to plants generated with conventional mutagenesis techniques. These gene-edited plants are therefore not regulated by GM legislation,unless the EU decides to regulate them in the future. We saw how each word in a policy is loaded with meaning that can sometimes be ambiguous, so while it was fascinating to see the decision-making process, I don’t envy the policymakers and regulators!

After the development of a new biotechnology comes the legislation to regulate it, which means policies are always a few steps behind the leading edge of new advances. The workshop attendees discussed how we might influence the regulation of new breeding technologies by framing them as a method for rapidly providing solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face. As a result of the meeting, the Global Plant Council has worked with a team of experts to develop a consensus statement on new breeding technologies, which we hope will be used internationally as a recommendation for future policy decisions regarding these techniques.

Know your audience

Science communicator Craig Cormick (Think Outside The1) warned attendees of the meeting not to be complacent about public opinion. We must learn from the mistakes made in communicating genetic modification to the public, remembering that most people’s opinions of biotechnology differ greatly from those of scientists. Both Andersson and Jansson have been very open about their work with CRISPRCas9 in Sweden, and, promisingly, neither has received any negative feedback from the public. A journalist from a Swedish newspaper even attended the workshop to learn more about the benefits of these techniques! We still have time to make the right impression. 

Conference dinner

A summary of the New Breeding Technologies satellite meeting would not be complete without mentioning the wonderful conference dinner. Stefan Jansson not only organised a three-course meal at a Michelin star restaurant, but he provided CRISPR-edited cabbage for the main course! (I’ve never seen scientists so excited!). Although we all understood that the cabbage was no different to a conventionally bred variety, eating CRISPR-edited food still felt like an amazingly unique experience. When they are commonly grown in the future, we will be able to say we ate some of the first gene-edited crops in the world!

1. www.thinkoutsidethe.com.au 

 

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Sarah Jose

Sarah Jose

Sarah Jose is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, investigating the link between wax biosynthesis and stomatal development. Alongside her studies, Sarah is the New Media Fellow for the Global Plant Council, running their blog and promoting the latest plant science research. She is a keen science communicator and will tell anyone who’ll listen about her fascination with plants!