Ask the Expert: Genome Editing, Plant Breeding & the EU Proposal
Q&A with Matthias Berens – Research Lead Genome Editing at KeyGene
After years of research & discussion, the European Commission has brought forward a new legislative proposal on the regulation of new genomic techniques. This initiative proposes a legal framework for plants obtained by targeted genome editing.
The new regulations aim to contribute to the goals of the European Green Deal and the ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy through agri-food innovation, while maintaining a high level of protection for human and animal health and the environment.
Our own Genome Editing Research Lead Matthias Berens, shares his expertise and insights with us on the significance of this development.
Could you provide a short summary of what genome editing is and what can it be used for?
Genome editing (GE) is a molecular process that can induce very precise variation in genetic material: DNA. Over the past decades, scientists secured this process into functional & controllable tools, to induce variation in, for instance, the genome of crops. In crops, these induced variations can then be selected in a breeding program to obtain enhanced crop varieties with a desired trait. Traits like resilience to climate change, better nutritional content, or resistance against pests and diseases.
One example of a GE tool is targeted mutagenesis via the CRISPR-Cas system. This tool uses a biological scissor to cut the DNA at a pre-determined spot, after which the cell’s natural repair mechanisms are used to glue the DNA back together with the desired adaptation. This and other recent molecular GE tools are often combined under the umbrella term New Genomic Techniques (NGTs).
What makes genome editing so exciting to you?
Breeding new crop varieties is something humanity has done for thousands of years. Traditional plant breeding relies on the random shuffling of genetic material when two plants are crossed. But it can take up to 10 years for such randomized breeding to produce a new variety. This is, in part, because of the size and complexity of their genome – crop genomes are often larger and more complex than our own human genome.
Unfortunately, if it takes 10 years to breed a new variety, adapting to fast changing environmental conditions will not be possible.
Applying GE in plant breeding allows breeders to efficiently translate the massive amount of knowledge we gained from the scientific community into crop development and massively speed up plant breeding.
NGTs like CRISPR-Cas enable us to innovate the field even further. Through growing scientific understanding, we can now pinpoint which spot on the genome we need to target in order to obtain a desired trait. NGTs allow us to target that specific location, giving us a more precise and efficient way to develop varieties than randomized shuffling.
“Plant breeding is, in essence, selection of the desired genetics for a given environment.”
Why is the EU proposal on changing genome editing legislation significant?
This proposal by the EU Commission would exempt GE plants from the current GMO law if their genetic alterations are equivalent to what could be accomplished with conventional plant breeding. GE plants which fall under this condition would not require lengthy risk assessments. This would allow developers to bring them to market much sooner and accelerate research on crop development within the European Union.
The proposal is a significant milestone for the EU and shows that EU policy makers understand and are confident in the impact of NGTs. It’s good to see that the proposed changes are based on scientific knowledge and principle. Comprehensive risk assessments, like this EFSA paper, have concluded that the GE plants addressed in the proposal are as safe as conventionally bred plants.
A clear and well-written deregulated EU legislation will enable all of us, including smaller stakeholders, to utilize the full potential of NGTs and speed up development of better crop varieties.
How does the new EU proposal, in your opinion, change the plant breeding field?
Certainly, the plant breeding industry will be able to utilize new tools to accelerate the development of improved crop varieties. However, I think it’s important to highlight that NGTs are simply an additional, albeit essential, technique in a larger toolbox used for crop improvement.
Developing enhanced crop varieties is a necessary part to establishing and maintaining global food security. With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly more apparent, this development needs to go even faster.
NGTs can help us achieve this. But NGTs will not give us these much needed results on their own. Fundamental and applied research, broad access to technologies, availability of natural genetic variation, collaboration between stakeholders, and many more aspects, are equally as important.
Another major impact of this proposal will be the much needed boost to scientific research on crop improvement and genome editing. If we want to tackle and adapt to issues such as climate change, expanding our scientific knowledge on these topics will be necessary.
“If it takes 10 years to breed a new variety, adapting to fast changing environmental conditions will not be possible.”
What further considerations should be present when implementing genome editing in plant breeding?
As I mentioned before, inducing genetic variation using NGTs is an essential aspect, but only one aspect on the way to develop new varieties. Plant breeding is, in essence, selection of the desired genetics for a given environment. That means that the focus lies on the selection that bring us the more drought tolerant, the more pathogen resistant, the higher yielding crop variety. The selection step is important and will also be applied to plants that contain genetic variation induced through NGTs. NGTs will simply allow for a much faster and more precise induction of the genetic variation to be selected.
What type of work does KeyGene do on genome editing?
At KeyGene we work together with our partners to develop and innovate on novel technologies as well as on the application of these technologies for crop improvement. In my group specifically we work on novel GE technologies, around genome editors, as well as on genome editor delivery methods. Our R&D work also focuses on the optimization of existing tools for a selected number of crops. For instance, we are working on tools that allow for a more direct application of NGTs to the crop of interest, resulting in an even quicker induction of the desired genetic variation.
As we consider genome editing as one of the essential steps in developing future crops, we design from a holistic perspective: our technological developments are imbedded in the entire process of variety development. Our GE-related technology innovations are often designed in collaboration with innovations in gene & trait discovery, plant regeneration, phenotyping, data handling, and genome analysis.