Last week, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled in favour of tying plants bred using gene editing technology (also called mutagenesis) to the same stringent guidelines as conventionally genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Along with GMOs, gene-edited crops are considered to play an important role in increasing productivity. However, question marks remain over the efficiency of gene editing and its potential to disrupt the natural order.
Modification & editing
Simply put, genetic modification involves the introduction of foreign DNA into an organism, while gene editing involves editing of the organism’s native genome.
The gene editing technology CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was in the news last year after it was successfully used in human embryos. This is done by introducing a protein (Cas9) containing the code of a defective gene. The protein then seeks out parts of the defective DNA that match this code, attaches itself to it, cuts it out, and then the DNA is allowed to repair itself by getting rid of the defect.
“That is because we know exactly which gene would be edited and can be sure that that will happen. In GMO, it is more of trial and error,” said Dr N K Singh, project director, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, New Delhi.
What EU court ruled
“The Court of Justice takes the view, first of all, that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Directive, in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally,” the EU court said in a press statement. “It follows that those organisms come, in principle, within the scope of the GMO Directive and are subject to the obligations laid down by that directive.”
It, however, leaves out other mutagenesis techniques like irradiation. It observed these have a proven track record and need not be considered under the same bracket.
Scientists had hoped that gene editing technologies would find wider acceptance than GM — which has faced opposition — considering that gene editing does not involve introducing a foreign element into the plant’s genetic code. Scientists quoted by various media organisations say that the new ruling will affect research, with over 14,000 papers on gene editing having been published in 2017 alone, up from fewer than 100 papers in 2011, according to The Conversation.
“With gene editing, under appropriate regulations and policy, product development would be faster. You can tackle specific traits by creating mutations, which has been an age-old practice and works in crops which are otherwise too small to work on given the GMO regulatory burden,” said Usha Zehr, chief technology officer, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco). Also, she added, “it is cheaper if it is not treated as a GMO”.
India & abroad
Regulation has traditionally been stricter in Europe than in the US and Canada. In India, as in the EU, GM crops have faced resistance from farmers and environmental groups that have called for proper study and labelling.
“Today India does not have any regulations on CRISPR as it does on GMO crops but I understand that the Department of Biotechnology and Indian Council of Agricultural Research are in talks in this regard,” said Dr Singh. “Our experience with gene editing technology is mainly confined to research and not the field.”
Indian scientists acknowledge the need for regulation for bio-safety. “All breeding work must be registered with data on how the scientist arrived at that variety of crop. There must be a regulatory framework that does not take long processes, like four years, for approval,” said Dr Deepak Pental, retired professor of genetics at Delhi University, whose team had developed a GM mustard hybrid and continues to await approval, since 2015, for commercial cultivation.
“I hope India does not follow the EU model of regulation and instead takes up models followed in the US, Australia and Canada,” Dr Pental said.