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Europe looks to update gene editing regulations

The European Commission has released its proposed regulatory approach for new genomic techniques.
Photo: Evan Collis

The European Commission (EC) has released its proposed regulatory approach for new genomic techniques (NGTs). These facilitate precise edits of a target genome using tools such as CRISPR. The long-awaited details formed part of the Commission’s ‘Sustainable use of natural resources’ package, designed to strengthen the resilience of European Union (EU) food systems and farming.

According to the Commission, NGTs are innovative tools that can help increase the sustainability and resilience of the EU’s food system. These tools allow precise and efficient development of improved plant varieties that can be climate resilient, pest resistant, require fewer fertilisers and pesticides, or produce higher yields.

In 2001, when the EU’s legislation on genetically modified organisms was implemented, NGT’s did not exist. Currently, plants developed using NGTs are subject to the same rules as GMOs, which significantly delays access to new plants and crops developed using NGT’s.

To better reflect the different risk profiles of NGT plants, the proposed legislation creates two distinct regulatory pathways for NGT plants.

Those NGT plants that could also occur naturally or by conventional breeding will be subject to a verification procedure, based on criteria set in the proposal. NGT plants that meet these criteria are treated like conventional plants and therefore exempted from the requirements of the GMO legislation. This means no risk assessment has to be made and these plants can be labelled in the same way as conventionally-bred plants.

For all other NGT plants, the requirements of the current GMO legislation would apply. This means that they are subject to risk assessments, and they can only be put on the market following an authorisation procedure.

For these plants, there will be adapted detection methods and tailored monitoring requirements. Those plants developed using NGTs that introduce genetic material from a non-crossable species remain subject to the existing GMO legislation.

The EC believes these new technologies can contribute to the transition to a more-sustainable agriculture and food system. Growers, for example, would benefit from increased availability of plants tailored to satisfy the needs of the sector, such as climate resilience, pest resistance, improved yield and reduced need for fertilisers and pesticides.

Outside the EU, several NGT plant products are already available, or are in the process of becoming available. These products have characteristics including pest and disease resistance, resistance to environmental stress (including from climate change) and improved nutritional qualities, taste or texture.

The European Parliament and Council of the European Union is set to consider the proposed legislation.

How gene editing can address climate change

The potential of gene editing to deliver climate change solutions at a large scale has been the subject of meetings hosted by US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Researchers from around the world convened to discuss and develop concepts that have the potential to remove gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere within the foreseeable future.

Some of the projects being considered include:

Adjusting stomatal density to reduce water requirements in rice

Professor Julie Gray from the University of Sheffield in the UK described how rice is a major food crop, but its water-intensive cultivation leads to greenhouse gas emissions estimated to account for 2.5 per cent of human-induced climate change. This could be substantially alleviated by optimising crops to reduce water loss and speed the much-needed shift from paddy rice towards dry-seeded systems.

In collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, novel rice varieties with reduced stomatal density have already been produced through gene editing and trait selection that could be field-tested rapidly and adopted by growers within eight years.

Capturing agricultural methane emission with methane-eating bacteria

Professor Emeritus Mary Lidstrom from the University of Washington in the US outlined a plan for methane capture from air using methane-eating bacteria (methanotrophs). Methane has a warming impact 34 times greater than CO2 on a 100-year timescale. This makes it a key short-term target for slowing global warming by 2050.

Professor Lidstrom’s team is developing biofilter technology using bacteria that metabolise methane, to remove methane from the air over emission sites, including agricultural areas. This technology will be designed to also reduce production of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, by limiting nitrate availability.

Blocking conversion of excess nitrogen fertilisers to greenhouse gas emissions

Professor Lisa Stein from the University of Alberta, Canada, is working with biological nitrification inhibitors and soil-free systems. Worldwide adoption of these plant-derived BNI (biological nitrification inhibition)  molecules in combination with biological fertilisers would substantially elevate nitrogen use efficiency by crops while blocking the dominant source of nitrous oxide to the atmosphere.

Reinventing photosynthesis

Professor Tobias Erb from the Max Planck Institute in Germany leads a large team looking for ways to improve photosynthesis beyond its natural limits. Plants generally use only about one per cent of the sunlight that falls on them to make carbohydrates, consuming or ‘fixing’ atmospheric carbon in the process.

Professor Erb and his colleagues are on track to radically reinvent photosynthesis using synthetic biology, enzyme engineering and machine learning to create innovative crops featuring a new-to-nature carbon dioxide fixation metabolism with photosynthetic yields increased by 20 to 60 per cent (potentially up to 200 per cent).

Engineering faster-growing trees and grasses

Dr Xiaohan Yang from Oak Ridge National Lab in the US has proposed a three-pronged approach to carbon sequestration and climate change adaptation that would involve increased photosynthesis, increased translocation of captured carbon and increased soil capacity.

The three objectives are integrative engineering of carbon dioxide capture, storage and utilisation in fast-growing poplar (which can be used as a feedstock for biofuels, biomaterials, and engineered for deeper roots and root architectures for increased carbon storage); genetically enhanced agave-mediated carbon sequestration and utilisation in dry and hot regions; and the development of ‘care-free/climate-friendly’ lawn grasses.

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