Plant breeders are increasingly using techniques to produce new varieties they say are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. New genome editing technologies can introduce new traits more quickly and precisely.
However, in July, 2018, the European Court of Justice decreed they alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally, so they should fall under the GMO Directive. This went against the opinion of the Advocate General.
In October 2018, leading scientists representing 85 European research institutions endorsed a position paper warning that the ruling could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding.
The paper argues for an urgent review of European legislation, and, in the short term, for crops with small DNA adaptations obtained through genome editing to fall under the regulations for classically bred varieties.
‘As European leaders in the field of plant sciences […] we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence,’ says one of the signatories, Dirk Inzé, Scientific Director at Life Sciences Institute VIB in Belgium.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
What is genetic modification? Video: The Royal Society
The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
Blue dye, in this cross-section of a maize cob, highlights the rice gene that controls T6P in the kernels’ phloem. Image: Rothamsted Research
Through the introduction of a rice gene, scientists have produced a maize plant that harvests more kernels per plant – even in periods of drought.
The rice gene expressed depresses levels of a natural chemical, trehalose 6 -phosphate (T6P), in the phloem of the transgenic maize plant. T6P is responsible for the distribution of sucrose in the plant.
Lowering levels of T6P in the phloem, an essential track in the plant’s transportation system, allows more sucrose to be channelled to the developing kernels of the plant. As a result of increased levels of sucrose in this area of the maize plant, more kernels are produced.
Drought is an increasing problem in countries such as Uganda. Image: Hannah Longhole
‘These structures are particularly sensitive to drought – female kernels will abort,’ said Matthew Paul, team leader and plant biochemist at Rothamsted Research, UK. ‘Keeping sucrose flowing within the structures prevents this abortion.’
The transatlantic team, from Rothamsted and biotechnology company Syngenta in the US, built on field tests published three years ago that demonstrated increased productivity of the same genetically-modified maize.
‘This is a first-in-its-kind study that shows the technology operating effectively both in the field and in the laboratory,’ said Paul.
Maize growing on world’s oldest experiment, Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research. Image: Rothamsted Research
Drought is becoming an increasing problem for developing countries, where the economic and social impacts are most evident.
Maize, also known as corn, and other cereals are relied on heavily across these nations due to their low cost and high nutritional value, with rice, maize, and wheat used for 60% of the global food energy intake.
The results of these trials are promising, and the team believe this work could be transferred to wheat and rice plants, as well as other cereals, said Paul.