Scientists can alter a plant's DNA sequence to produce higher yields ©Getty Images/iStockphoto
Scientists can alter a plant's DNA sequence to produce higher yields ©Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tech briefing: Gene editing of crops

Science could alter what we eat by boosting crop harvests, strengthening resistance to disease and improving flavour. But will government red tape hamper progress? 

Gene editing is a scientific technique where geneticists deliberately alter a DNA sequence within the living cell of an organism. In agriculture, gene editing can be used to create crops that are tastier, more nutritious, resistant to pests, hardier during droughts and – perhaps most important when it comes to the global supply chain – able to produce higher yields. 

Crucially, it does not involve inserting foreign DNA from viruses or bacteria, as is the case with the controversial method known as genetic modification. 

“Gene editing in its simplest form is just introducing mutations that could occur naturally,” says professor Nigel Halford, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, UK. 

How does it work?
Geneticists first cut a strand of DNA within the plant and then allow natural mechanisms to repair the genetic structure, minus the targeted genes. The two most established methods, zinc-finger nucleases and TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases), have been joined by the newer CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) method, which is causing most excitement among crop scientists thanks to its low cost, efficiency and ease of use. Hundreds of laboratories all over the world are involved. 

Which crops will be improved?
In the distant future, perhaps all of them. So far there has been gene editing research in the following foods: tomatoes (resulting in plants with more fruit) mushrooms (increased shelf life), chocolate (helping cacao resist a virus in West Africa), corn (drought resistance), wine (preventing grape mildew), wheat (lowering gluten), rice (a 30% increase in yield), coffee (a naturally decaffeinated bean) and bananas (combatting banana streak virus). The latter rots bananas and threatens global production of the world’s fourth most valuable crop, according to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization.

How it might affect food supply chains?
Halford explains that, in the US, many start-up biotech companies are introducing gene-edited crops onto the market. “Quality, high-fibre wheat is one good example,” he says. 

Higher crop yields and resistance to disease and drought could result in far more food in the global supply chain. 

Beware the red tape
Advances in gene-editing technology could be blocked across the EU, as regulations from the European Court of Justice in 2018 pose barriers to its use in agriculture. 

According to Halford, organisations won’t fund trials if regulatory laws prevent plant strains continuing to market. “There is still the question of how gene editing will be regulated in Europe,” he adds. “There is no clear, formal regulation on it. Because of the 2018 ruling, gene editing has to be treated like genetic modification.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the US Department of Agriculture has not subjected gene-edited crops to the same stringent regulations as GM crops, enabling start-up US biotech companies to get involved and leading to faster progress in gene editing. 

“In the US, SMEs are playing a big part in driving the technology forward,” Halford adds. “Presumably because it’s easier, cheaper and faster. If you remove the regulatory hurdles, that knocks a lot off the cost.” 

Salt-tolerant rice
It’s thanks to alliances between institutions, researchers and plant breeders that gene-edited crops are able to come to market. In China, for example, a project known as the National Salt-Tolerant Rice Regional Trial Alliance is trialling new rice strains that can be cultivated in water with high salt content, opening up farming on 20 million hectares of land that was previously unproductive. The first group of seven rice strains from this initiative will be submitted this year to the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs which will evaluate them for commercial certification.

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