Low cost gene editing is the next wave of GM technology
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."