Low cost gene editing is the next wave of GM technology
Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30
A second era of genetic engineering is underway in the US, with new gene 'editing' technology opening up a world of possibility at low cost to plant breeders.
Several companies are already commercialising both plants and animals that are the result of the new CRISPR technology. The polled gene is being activated to eliminate dehorning in common cattle and dairy breeds, while companies such as Intrexon are pioneering plants that will flower on demand and apples that don't turn brown when cut.
"We're not introducing genes from any other species," explained Intrexon's Jack Bobo.
"Instead we are recombining genes that already exist within an apple to switch off the gene that triggers the polyphenoloxidase (PPO) that makes the apple go brown. PPO exists in nature to break down the flesh of an apple so that the seeds inside can germinate. So preventing the browning is harmless, but by doing so we drastically reduce the waste from apples and make them more suitable to be included in kids lunchboxes as cut slices," he explained.
The former USDA food policy adviser was speaking at the ASA conference in Kilkenny on Friday.
While Intrexon's 'arctic' apple is expected to be widely available throughout the US in the next year, it is unclear whether EU legislation will allow this type of genetically modified organism (GMO) to be made available in Europe.
"It is a shame because this technology really has the potential to redemocratise the whole process of plant breeding. Up to now, it was so expensive to bring a sucessful seed to market that the opportunity was limited to just six big global biotech companies.
"But any university can carry out this type of breeding, which effectively short-circuits the hunt for the prefect mutation within a species that often took breeders decades and pure chance to achieve. While traditional GMOs might have cost €100m to breed, and therefore had to be limited to a handful of crops that would generate a return, this technology allows new varieties to be bred for maybe €100,000. That means it can be applied to niche crops that are important in a small region."
It is unclear as to whether CRISPR comes under the remit of EU legislation designed specifically to govern GMOs.
The vast majority of GMO crops are banned from being cultivated in the EU, although the region is heavily dependent on GM grains such as soya and maize imported from North and South America.
Intrexon is also working on developing a range of protein sprays that could be used for anything from killing insects to controlling when a plant decides to flower.
"We can design a plant that will not flower or go to seed until a farmer sprays the crop with a RNA protein 'switch'. This could be useful in a whole range of situations from cut flowers to vegetable production to pastures where farmers are trying to maximise the digestibility of the fodder," said Mr Bobo.
Another spray will contain a protein that is lethal to insects but harmless to both the environment and humans.
"There's lots of different RNA proteins that could combine with an insect's DNA that would disable them in some way.
"We would ensure that it is harmless to humans by scanning the human genome to ensure that it cannot interact with any human gene.
"Because this spray would be made out of protein instead of chemicals, it would breakdown in a few hours, and be much more targetted so that you are only affecting one insect at a particular time," he said.
Mr Bobo said that his company was also developing a series of RNA-treatments that could be used in human medicine that could be used to treat cancers, with a similar capacity to be switched on and off.
New approach will tap into potential of plants and animals own genomes