US gene-editing ruling delights plant scientists

Ruling paves way for creation of new genetically altered crops

Researchers in the US have been given the go-ahead to use gene-editing techniques to alter crops and plants. The decision opens the door for scientists to create a new generation of genetically altered crops without serious restriction and paves the way for approvals for similar work in Britain and the rest of Europe.

The decision – by the US Department of Agriculture – has delighted scientists who had feared that limitations on the creation and growing of genetically modified crops would also be imposed on crops created using far simpler gene-editing techniques.

“I think this decision by American legislators will have all sorts of benefits in the long run,” said Professor Denis Murphy of the University of South Wales. “This is a win-win situation because agriculture for gene-editing is cheaper, faster, simpler and more precise than the genetic modification of plants, in which a gene is taken from one organism and moved to another.”

The European Court of Justice indicated in January that it does not think crops created though gene-editing techniques should be regulated by the rules that govern genetically modified organisms in Europe. “At the same time, Britain’s Acre – the advisory committee on releases into the environment – also seems to be sympathetic to this position,” said Professor Huw Dylan Jones of Aberystwyth University. “It is very encouraging.”

In the wake of hostile green campaigns, Britain imposed severe restrictions on GM crops two decades ago and few have been grown. The prospect that this fate would also befall plants created by the newer and simpler technique of gene-editing worried many researchers who feared a technology at which Britain excels would be banned. These fears are now disappearing, they say.

“If we have our own domestic gene-editing industry then scientists trained at our universities will have something to work on here when they qualify,” said Murphy. “At present, our young scientists have to go to work in another country if they want to continue working on the topic.”

Gene-editing could lead to the development of domestic crops particularly suited to Britain, said Dylan Jones. “Loliums and clovers that are good for grazing could be improved to make them more hardy, for example,” he said. “It is very hopeful.”

Genetically modified crops are generated through the introduction of foreign DNA sequences.

Gene-edited crops are created by editing an organism’s native genome.

Gene-editing is more efficient, cheaper, quicker and more precise.

By altering the DNA make-up of a gene the characteristics of a cell or an organism can be changed.


Robin McKie Science editor

The GuardianTramp

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