UK plants its first gene edited crop

By Joan Conrow

May 31, 2018

Scientists at Rothamsted Research have sown one of the world’s first experimental field trials of a genome edited crop in an effort to develop more nutritious plants that can be sustainably grown.

The trial — the first to be conducted on genome edited (GE) plants in the United Kingdom — will be conducted on two lines of Camelina plants, a flowering annual in the mustard family whose seeds are useful in oil production. It will investigate the efficiency of genome editing as a tool in developing plants that can deliver for the public good.

Genome editing can create new varieties of plants with desired traits by altering their genetic code in a way that could have happened naturally, without incorporating genes from another species. In that regard, it’s similar to traditional breeding plant methods.

But the new technology has a distinct advantage over traditional methods because it’s more precise and can dramatically cut development times, said Johnathan Napier, a leading pioneer in plant biotechnology at Rothamsted.

Napier is an advocate for using the power of this technology for the public good. In this case, the genome edited crops will help scientists improve their understanding of lipid metabolism, which is useful in research related to using plants to produce a form of lipid known as omega-3 fish oils in their seeds. These oils are essential to healthy diets, but their marine-derived supply is limited.

“This technology could have a huge impact on the sustainable intensification of agriculture for the benefit of all,” he said. “It’ll be useful to see how the CRISPR-edited Camelina performs in the field.”

The GE varieties were produced by a technique known as CRISPR-Cas9. Though the Cas9 protein that changed the plant’s genetic coding came from a different species, no remnants of the transgene are present in the final plant. Another significant difference with the GE technology is that the genetic changes are expressed in every cell, in all parts of the plant.

The planting was approved by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which followed advice from its Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment: “It would not be possible to determine whether these lines had been produced by genome-editing or by traditional mutagenesis because they would be genetically indistinguishable.”

A more general clarification came from Defra Minister George Eustice in a parliamentary written answer in March: “Where gene editing results in an organism with DNA from a different species it will be regulated under the controls for genetically modified organisms. However, the government’s view is that specific regulation of this technology is not required where the induced genetic change could have occurred naturally or been achieved through traditional breeding methods.”

Rothamsted is collaborating in the GE research with a French team led by Jean-Denis Faure, professor of plant embryogenesis at INRA’s Versailles-Grignon Research Centre.