New Act enables scientists to improve crops in England

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With the recent Precision Breeding Act passed, England now has the opportunity to capitalise on its world-leading research base in plant sciences and make agriculture more sustainable.

Scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory, a plant and microbial research institute in Norwich, welcome the new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act. Under the provisions of this Act, a new regulatory system will be introduced in England for the regulation of precision-bred plants and animals developed through techniques such as gene editing, where the genetic changes could have occurred naturally or through traditional breeding methods.

Gene editing allows precise mutations to be made in plant genes much more quickly than other conventional plant breeding methods.

"For centuries, farmers have used breeding to modify the genetics of plants, searching for ways to improve traits that include yield, disease resistance and flavour." - Genetic Literacy Project

Genetic Modification (GM) is a term often used to refer to 'transgenics', which are not covered by this new Act and will still require the older, more stringent EU regulations. However, the term has a broader meaning in the scientific community.

Prof. Jonathan Jones FRS, Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory who developed a GM fully late blight resistant PiperPlus potato, says “After many decades researching the science that can make our crops resistant to disease and less reliant on fungicides, I am delighted to finally see changes in legislation that will allow some of these innovations to be applied in the field and benefit our farmers and the environment.”

He adds, “While I would’ve hoped to see the same proportionate regulations also apply to other, more established, plant breeding technologies such as GM, I think enabling gene editing for crop improvement is a step in the right direction.”

Researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory are recognised for making fundamental scientific discoveries in how plants resist disease and applying these to reduce crop losses, particularly in low-income countries.

Plant scientists know that by introducing small specific changes in genes via genetic technologies they can have a very positive impact on crop growth and development, and the ability of plants to grow in more challenging environments.

The Sainsbury Laboratory has been exploring how to improve crops using gene editing. With small mutations and deletions, significant changes can be made to the crop phenotype. Powdery mildew is the main reason why UK farmers spray their tomato crops with fungicide. A resistant variety will significantly reduce the need for these agrochemicals. Gene editing naked barley is used to better understand the contribution of seed hulls to malt quality and answer outstanding questions in the malting industry. A more compact tomato plant will allow growers to utilize their greenhouse space more efficiently and maximise tomato yield.

Prof. Nick Talbot FRS, Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, says “With gene editing, we now have the opportunity to revolutionize plant breeding and tap into the vast biodiversity of plants in a more precise manner. This is a crucial innovation that can help break our dependence on agrochemicals and ensure a more sustainable future for all."

By lifting some of the regulatory burden associated with gene edited food and feeds, England can at last bring the environmental and health benefits of this technology to the public.

For example, powdery mildew disease is one of the main reasons why British tomato growers spray fungicides on their crops. By removing a gene that makes tomatoes susceptible to powdery mildew, researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory were able to develop a new resistant variety, the Tomelo, in a single step. Sophien Kamoun and his team made the technological pipeline publicly available, allowing plant breeders from all over the world to access and further develop this approach.

By incorporating this simple edit into commercial tomato varieties, our need for fungicides could be drastically reduced.

Prof. Sophien Kamoun FRS, Group Leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory, says "Our scientists based in Norwich were pioneers in developing CRISPR gene editing technology for plants back in 2013. This technology holds enormous potential for world agriculture, and many countries have already started realizing that potential by bringing CRISPR-edited, nutritionally enhanced plants to market. I’m excited to see England finally catch up.”