Frequently Asked Questions*
By making specific small changes to plant genes, which influence a specific plant characteristic such as colour, new genomic techniques (NGTs) represent a next step in plant breeding that has enormous unprecedented potential. It can help us breed plants that are, for instance, more nutritious, disease resistant, or able to grow in less optimal conditions. This way, it can aid in providing everyone with sufficient good quality food while making agriculture more sustainable. So why not give it a chance?
Many young scientists feel that NGTs can contribute to the development of solutions for the challenges we face today and tomorrow. As citizens and scientists, we want to make the general public, policy makers and politicians aware that we are concerned. We ask the EU authorities for evidence-informed policymaking in order to unlock scientific progress’s potential to help provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. Give genes a chance!
What are “New genomic techniques” (NGTs)?
NGTs are a suit of methods developed in the past decade that are used to breed new plant varieties by carefully changing the genetic material of seeds or plant cells instead of relying on random DNA mutations. By mimicking natural mutations, NGTs can be used to facilitate breeding of crops that are resilient to drought and pests, have higher yields, better quality and thus contribute to food security and the sustainable development of agriculture. Unfortunately, the current legal framework in the EU requires equal treatment of artificially produced GMOs and plants that were altered with NGTs in a nature-mimicking, but carefully targeted way. This also restricts the use of plants obtained by NGTs which could have occurred spontaneously.
What are “conventional mutagenesis techniques”?
These techniques are traditional plant breeding techniques in which seeds or plant parts are treated with chemicals or radiation to develop new traits. These approaches rely on generating random mutations in the entire genome of plants. The plants with the desired characteristics are then selected for further cultivation – all in all, a cumbersome process. Plant varieties obtained using mutagenesis – conventional or novel methods – do not contain genetic material from a foreign (or not sexual compatible) species. Conventional mutagenesis techniques are exempted from strict regulations laid out in the EU’s GMO directive and products thereof have been grown and consumed for decades.
What is a “genetically modified organism” (GMO)?
GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially modified in a way that could not have occurred through natural breeding with the same or a similar species. These GMOs may contain genetic material from organisms with which they could not have exchanged this material naturally and are then referred to as transgenes. The cultivation and market release of GMOs are strictly regulated in the EU to ensure our own and the environment’s safety.
How do NGTs compare to other plant breeding techniques?
We humans have been practicing plant breeding for millennia of years to select for variation within genes of our foods, thereby making those foods better to eat by altering their characteristics. In fact, much of what we eat today could not exist without it. Initially, plant breeding had to depend on random DNA changes happening by chance. Later, plant breeders developed techniques that allowed them – and still do – to insert variation into DNA. These adaptations occur in many genes simultaneously and still at random. New genomic techniques, on the other hand, are tools of precision, that can be used to introduce the same type of changes but faster and within a specific gene, which is why it is widely considered to be at least as safe as other plant breeding practices.
How can NGTs contribute to a more sustainable agriculture?
New genomic techniques can make it easier and faster for a breeder to improve a crop variety, so that it is for example more climate and pest resilient. For instance, a crop may be created which is resistant to fungal diseases, and thus less toxic chemicals will be sprayed into the environment. A crop may also be optimised to require less nutrient input and thus help unburden European soils, which are heavily overloaded with agricultural fertilisers that enter the groundwater. These are just three out of many possibilities – and all of these may contribute to more sustainable agriculture.
What are advantages of using these NGTs instead of conventional breeding techniques?
The most important advantages of the new genomic techniques in comparison to conventional breeding techniques (specifically mutagenesis) is that they are more accurate and faster. Breeding by conventional mutagenesis relies on using harsh chemicals and radiation to introduce random mutations in the DNA of a crop. These mutations are created both in the desired and undesired locations within the DNA of the crop. This results in a very lengthy and expensive breeding process, and a product that may harbour unwanted side effects. NGTs are more efficient and more accurate than conventional mutagenesis. They can be used to introduce just one single mutation in the DNA of a crop, without the many unwanted off-target mutations introduced using conventional mutagenesis. This procedure is also a lot faster, and time is precious when it comes to breeding climate resilient crops.
What is a good metaphor to explain the advantages of using these NGTs compared to conventional breeding techniques?
If you want to listen to your favourite song, it may take hours or days before it is played on the radio. In the meantime, you may need to listen to songs that you do not like and many, many advertisements. If you use a streaming service, you can listen to your favourite song instantly without being disturbed by bad songs or ads. Conventional mutagenesis is like waiting for the radio to play your favourite song. New breeding techniques are like skipping all the random songs and directly listening to your favourite song using a streaming service. Eventually, both music platforms will let you listen to the same song – just like both types of breeding techniques will let you generate the same crops. The only difference is the amount of time required and the number of unwanted side effects. New genomic techniques are better on both accounts.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a popular new genomic technique that acts as a word processor for genes, which influence the characteristics of every living thing such as the flavour of a plant’s fruit. Like a word processor, scientists can use CRISPR to pinpoint and then cut a specific piece of DNA of a gene in a cell. The DNA is then automatically fixed by a natural repair machinery that is present in all cells – even ours – and that can create a small change at the DNA site that was cut. In other words, by employing CRISPR we can make a precise change – a type of change commonly found in nature – within a specific gene, and this with unprecedented precision and efficiency. In 2020 the Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to two researchers that contributed to the development of this new genomic technique.
What about off-target effects?
Scientists frequently discuss the issue of potential off-target alterations resulting from genome editing. These are often referred to as “off-target effects”. The use of the word “effect” implies that every off-target alteration will result in an unintended and possibly undesirable effect, which is not the case because of redundancy in the genetic code. Therefore, we propose to adopt “off-target changes” instead. NGTs are continuously being improved to increase efficiency and decrease the frequency of off-target alterations. Moreover, scientists and plant breeders have the ability to select plants in which only the desired DNA alteration has occurred, without off-target changes.
*Text adapted with permission from Grow Scientific Progress and Give CRISPR a Chance.