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‘Almost all crops today have been changed from their original form’: National Academies of Sciences says GMOs just most recent form of food genetic modification

National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine | May 3, 2022

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Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library
Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

People have been changing plants for thousands of years. Humans started farming more than 10,000 years. Agriculture began in Mesopotamia, in the region we now call the Middle East. At first, people took the seeds of wild plants and put them in places where they would grow well and be easier to harvest. Soon, people noticed that some plants performed better than others, and they kept the seeds of the best ones to plant the next year. As people did this year after year, farmed crops slowly became different from their wild relatives. This process is often called domestication.

The choices early farmers made about which seeds to plant were driven by many of the same factors that influence choices made about seeds today. Many wild plants naturally produce toxins that act as a defense against pests, and people made seed choices so that many crops today are tasty, nutritious, and easy to digest. Farmers want plants that are easier to harvest and produce more fruit, vegetables, grains, fiber, or oil. They also look for plants that can withstand disease, pests, flooding, drought and other problems.

Over thousands of years, people grew many types of crops, brought them to new areas of the world, and continued to change the plants to suit their needs.

Methods for changing plants expanded as science and technology advanced

In the 1800s, Gregor Mendel and others made discoveries about how parents pass traits to their offspring. This new understanding helped people produce new varieties of plants with useful qualities using selective breeding. In this method, two plants with desirable traits are deliberately mated so the next generation of plants will have these characteristics. As experiments in plant breeding continued, people learned how to breed plants together to create hybrids with certain traits. For example, hybrid types of corn, wheat, and rice were bred that produce more grain per plant and that can be grown in narrow rows in a field. Farmers are then able to harvest more grain using the same amount of land.

In the 1930s, people found that applying radiation or chemicals to a seed caused plants to have traits different from their parents. This is because radiation and certain chemicals can cause changes in the genes of plants, which determine what characteristics the plant will have. The seeds with the most useful traits caused by these genetic changes were then grown and used to breed new varieties of crops. Today, hundreds of varieties of more than 100 crops that we grow and eat were developed using these means, including many types of rice, wheat, and barley.

With the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and other advances in understanding how genes work, scientists began to explore other ways to improve plants. By the 1980s, scientists were able to identify specific bits of DNA called genetic markers that are associated with particular traits. By knowing what genetic markers to look for, marker assisted breeding speeds up the breeding process by allowing scientists to know whether a plant will have the desired trait even before it is grown.

For most of history, improving plants depended on choosing two parent plants of similar types or varieties that are able to breed with each other. In the 1980s, scientists also invented ways to create new traits by combining the genes of different kinds of plants, as well as DNA from other organisms, including bacteria and viruses. These new plants carry “recombinant” DNA and are sometimes referred to as Genetically engineeredtransgenicgenetically modified organisms (GMOs), or bioengineered. More than a dozen food crops with traits introduced through recombinant DNA are grown in the world today.

In the 2010s, gene editing was developed, allowing scientists to directly change a plant’s genes without having to use the DNA from another plant or other organism. A few such crops are grown today, including gene-edited soybeans that produce soybean oil with a healthier balance of fats.

Almost all crops today have been changed from their original form

Since people have been farming for such a long time, nearly all crops grown today have been genetically improved, whether through domestication, selective breeding, hybridization, radiation or chemicals, or changes made directly to plant genes by humans.

Scientists and growers continue to improve methods for making crops with certain traits. For example, people are working to create crops that can better withstand droughts, which are becoming more common as the climate changes.

A version of this article was posted at National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and is used here with permission. Find the National Academies of Sciences on Twitter @theNASciences

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When will CRISPR gene editing be widely adopted in farming — and what are the blockages?

Ferdinand Los | April 20, 2022

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Credit: Pete Reynolds
Credit: Pete Reynolds

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

If you’re involved in animal or plant sciences, you’ve been reading about CRISPR technology for many years. Ranging from the promise to solve major societal issues to a Nobel prize, CRISPR has been making headlines.

Here’s the thing: it has amazing potential and we’re so close to seeing some of that potential come to life, but it has been a long road.

For any emerging technology, from discovery to actually becoming a tool that can be used on a large scale, there are many steps and obstacles. CRISPR is no different. For our company and many others there have been steep learning curves and challenges to get us to where we are today.

CRISPR gene editing is predicted to grow substantially by 2030.
Credit: Emergen Research

Policymakers, consumers and farmers

One of the biggest and most critical first steps, outside of technical challenges, was—and is—consumer acceptance and explaining this technology to policymakers. Over the first several years, we spent a lot of time educating potential customers of what this means for them.

For farmers, the advantage is obvious. We can help them increase yield potentials, for example through defensive traits such as disease tolerance. For consumers, it took more discussion about what this means for them, but it has become clear they are generally quite open to the introduction of beneficial traits, for example that help cope with environmental challenges of farming, prevent food allergies, and so on.

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From a policy perspective, policy makers have been working to create an understanding about CRISPR, its safety and its benefits and we now see legislation evolving worldwide. More and more countries are welcoming CRISPR and gene-edited technologies with open arms: The U.S. is finalizing regulation that would allow gene-editing technology to be considered a conventional crop, under the condition that the outcome could eventually be achieved by conventional breeding. Several countries in South America recently finalized similar regulation. And in recent months, the UK, Switzerland and China have all signaled to start taking legislative steps towards regulating CRISPR-edited crops as non-GMO. (More information on the current status of CRISPR regulation globally.)

Judging by these changes I think that the message has largely landed in the market now that CRISPR breeding is way faster than traditional breeding and enables types of breeding that would be impossible with traditional breeding, in a non-transgenic fashion.

Cisgenic transfer occurs within the same plant or family. Transgenes are from other sources. Credit: Schouten et al.

We’re seeing that people do understand what’s going on. You can see that that on the consumer side, largely people look at this much more favorably than they do at the traditional GMO (transgenic) crops.

Research versus reputation

However, communication is still needed. Many companies are using this technology in R&D and breeding, but few are actually marketing products made using CRISPR. We see many companies holding back on putting crops into the market because they still consider consumer acceptance as a risk and fear for their brands’ reputations.

As objective as the profit motive and science can be, consumers and governments approach CRISPR with skepticism and questions.

We’re here to continue developing the technology as well as continue the conversation with researchers, breeders, seed companies, policymakers, and other organizations with an interest in molecular breeding so that new crop varieties developed with CRISPR can benefit from a faster route-to-market that is both democratized and beneficial to everyone.

Ferdinand Los is CSO of Hudson River Biotechnology.  Ferdinand holds advanced degrees in sciences including  a PhD from the University of California San Diego and post-doctoral work at Colombia University. You can check out Hudson River Biotechnology on Twitter @HudsonRiverBio1

A version of this article was posted to Seed World and is used here with permission. You can check out Seed World on Twitter @SeedWorldGroup

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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South Africa should rethink regulations on genetically modified plants

February 15, 2022 9.12am EST

Authors

  1. James R LloydAssociate Professor, Stellenbosch University
  2. Dave BergerProfessor in Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Pretoria
  3. Priyen PillaySenior Researcher, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

Disclosure statement

James R Lloyd receives funding from the National Research Foundation, South Africa.

Dave Berger receives funding from the National Research Foundation, South Africa and The Maize Trust, South Africa.

Dr Priyen Pillay receives funding from the National Research Foundation, South Africa and the Department of Science & Innovation, South Africa.

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Several small potatoes, still attached to their leaves and newly pulled from the dirt
New technologies can bolster the production of important crops to feed billions of people. Shutterstock

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Food security is a global priority – and it is becoming more urgent in the face of climate change, which is already affecting crop productivity. One way to improve food security is to increase crop yields.

But this is not easy. Research has shown that in the past two decades plant breeders have been unable to increase yields of staple crops at the rate at which the world’s population is growing.

New technologies are needed to achieve this rate. Over the past decade several novel technologies have been developed. These are known as New Breeding Techniques and have the potential to hugely help in growing efforts.

Genome editing is one such technique. It allows the precise editing of genomes – that is, the genetic information an organism contains. Scientists worldwide have embraced the technology. And countries that adopted New Breeding Techniques early have seen a significant increase in the development of locally relevant products. Current crops under development include ones resistant to specific diseases and insect pests, that are healthier to eat or which are tolerant of drought or heat stress.

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Both small, micro and medium enterprises and the public sector in these countries have been involved in developing and using genome edited crops. This should translate to improved economic growth and employment opportunities.


Read more: What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Chemistry Nobel prize?


Whatever approach a country chooses, it must be underpinned by regulation. This ensures a framework for the introduction of new products that benefit consumers and stimulate the bio-economy in a sustainable manner.

South Africa’s authorities have taken what we think is an unfortunate approach to regulating genome-edited plants. In October 2021 the government classified genome-edited plants as genetically modified crops. This is based on its interpretation of the definition of a genetically modified organism in a 25-year-old piece of legislation rather than on recent science-based risk analysis considerations.

As experts in plant biotechnology we fear that this regulatory approach will greatly inhibit the development of improved crops for South African farmers. It will place an unnecessary regulatory burden on bio-innovators. This will discourage local investment for in-house research and development, as well as projects in the public sector. Local entrepreneurs who aim to enhance local crops’ climate resilience or to develop speciality products for niche markets through genome editing will be thwarted by the need to raise disproportionate funding to fulfil current regulations.

A technological timeline

Crop plants are improved by generating genetic variation that leads to beneficial traits. Plant breeders traditionally achieved this by crossing different varieties of the same plant species. These approaches alter many genes; the result is that traditionally-bred plants contain both advantageous and deleterious traits. Removing disadvantageous traits before the crop can be commercialised is a costly, time-consuming process.

In the 1980s, transgenic genetic modification technologies were developed. These rely on pieces of DNA from one species being integrated into the genome of a crop. Such genetically modified (GM) plants are highly regulated internationally. In South Africa the legislation governing these plants came into force in 1999. The use of GM technology in South Africa – and other countries – has been highly successful.

For example, it has led to South Africa doubling maize productivity, making it a net exporter of this commodity. This contributes to food security and also generates foreign income, which reduces the country’s trade deficit.

But the regulations governing GM plants are onerous: only large agricultural biotechnology companies have the resources to commercialise them. This is done to the eliminate risk that GM plants containing new DNA are harmful for health or to the environment.

Because of this, all GM plants licensed for commercial use in South Africa come from a small number of international companies. Not a single locally developed product has been commercialised during the past three decades, despite South Africa being an early adopter of the technology. This hampers the development of novel crops and the improvement of traditional crops, especially for emerging and subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s why newer tools like genome editing are so exciting. They can be used to introduce genetic variation for crop improvement in a fraction of the time it would take using conventional methods. Some forms of genome editing are transgenic in nature, while others aren’t because they don’t involve the insertion of foreign DNA into a plant.

This approach mimics the effect of traditional plant breeding, but in a highly targeted manner so that only advantageous traits are introduced. For example, genome editing is being used to produce peanuts, soybean and wheat that do not produce allergens.

It’s working well. Despite the technology only being available for a decade, some crops produced using genome editing are already on the market in some countries, including soybean and tomatoes which are healthier for human consumption.

A proposed regulatory approach

Regulatory authorities around the world have taken either a process- or a product-based approach to regulating GM crop safety. A process-based approach examines how the crop was produced; a product-based approach examines the risks and benefits of the GM crop on a case-by-case basis.

We believe that a product-based approach makes most sense. This is because a process-based approach could lead to the strange situation where two identical plants are governed by very different regulations, just because they were produced by different methods. The added regulatory burden imposed by this approach will also hamper innovation in developing new crops.

Our approach would mean that any plant with extra DNA inserted into the genome would be governed as a GM plant. Plants with no extra DNA added and that are indistinguishable from conventionally bred organisms should be regulated like a conventionally produced crop.

This is the most rational way to regulate these different types of organisms, as it adheres to the principles of science-based risk analysis and good governance.

Many countries, among them ArgentinaChinaJapanthe USAustraliaBrazil and Nigeria, have taken this approach.

Science-based risk analysis should return to the heart of regulation: concrete risk thresholds should define regulatory triggers.

T

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The tomatoes at the forefront of a food revolution Share using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

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More than 180 million tons of tomatoes are produced globally each year, but the crop is sensitive to changes in the climate (Credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

By Marta Zaraska8th December 2021As global temperatures increase and extreme weather events become more common, can gene editing help to tweak our food plants so they can cope with the changes?A

At first glance, it looked like any other plant that can be found growing in the corners of offices or on the windowsills of university laboratories. But this particular tomato plant, grown in 2018 at the University of Minnesota, was different. The bushy tangle of elongated leaves and small red fruits were characteristic of a wild species of tomato plant native to Peru and Ecuador called Solanum pimpinellifolium, also known as the red currant tomato. A closer inspection, however, made the plant’s uniqueness more apparent.

This particular plant was more compact, with fewer branches but more fruits than the wild tomato. Its fruits were also a little darker than was usual, a sign of increased lycopene – an antioxidant linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart disease. It had, in fact, been designed that way.

The plant was created by geneticist Tomas Cermak and his colleagues with the use of Crispr gene editing, a Nobel Prize-winning technology which works like a “cut and paste” tool for genetic material. The technique is now revolutionising agriculture and helping create crops for the future.ADVERTISEMENT

Cermak himself is on a mission to find a perfect tomato, one that would be easy to cultivate, nutritious and tasty, yet more adaptable to a changing climate. “The ideal plant would be resistant to all forms of stress — heat, cold, salt and drought, as well as to pests,” he says.

Climate change spells trouble for many crops, and tomatoes are no exception. Tomatoes don’t like heat, growing best between 18C (64F) and 25C (77F). Cross either side of that threshold and things start going downhill: pollen doesn’t form properly, the flowers don’t form into berries in the way they should. Once the mercury goes over 35C (95F), yields begin to collapse. A 2020 study showed that by mid-21st Century up to 66% of land in California historically used for growing tomatoes may no longer have temperatures appropriate for the crop. Other modelling studies suggest that by 2050 large swaths of land in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Indonesia will also no longer have optimal climate for cultivation of tomatoes.

Story continues belowSolanum pimpinellifolium is a wild tomato found in Peru and Ecuador which bears fruit the size of currants (Credit: Alamy)

Solanum pimpinellifolium is a wild tomato found in Peru and Ecuador which bears fruit the size of currants (Credit: Alamy)

Of course, as average temperatures rise, other, previously too chilly regions, may become tomato-friendly. Yet observations in Italy show that weather extremes are something to consider, too. The 2019 growing season in northern Italy was marred by hail, strong winds, unusually high rainfall, and both exceptional frost and exceptional heat. The result was stressed tomato plants and poor harvests.

And there is more. Water scarcity, which forces farmers to use lower quality irrigation water, often containing salt, leads to increases in soil salinity – something commercial tomato cultivars don’t like. Higher ozone levels, meanwhile, make tomatoes more susceptible to diseases such as bacterial leaf spot.

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That’s all troubling, especially considering that tomatoes are currently the largest horticultural crop in the world – humanity produces 182 million tons of the fruit every year, equivalent to the weight of almost 32 Great Pyramids of Giza. What’s more, our appetites for tomatoes are growing fast – over the last 15 years global production of tomatoes rose by more than 30%.

Besides being humanity’s favourite fruit, tomatoes also happen to be a model crop: they are fast to grow, easy to breed and relatively simple to manipulate on a genetic level. “There is more funding available for research than there is for other plant species to develop resources like genome sequences, genetic engineering, and gene editing for tomato,” says Joyce Van Eck, plant geneticist at the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York. Taken together, this makes tomatoes perfect for study of novel gene editing technologies such as Crispr, which could bring us many climate-adaptive crops in the near future.

Once the climate-smart genes such as these are identified, they can be targeted using Crispr to delete certain unwanted genes, to tune others or insert new ones

Crispr is a molecular toolbox scientists have repurposed from bacteria – when bacteria are attacked by viruses, they capture and cut the viral DNA to prevent the aggressor from being able to replicate and so fight it off. In use in plants since 2013, Crispr now allows researchers to modify genome with extreme precision and accuracy to obtain traits they desire. You can insert genes, delete them, and create targeted mutations. In non-human animals Crispr is being used for the study of human disease models, for improving livestock, and could even potentially be used to resurrecting extinct species. In plants, it can help create better, tastier, more nutritious and more resistant crops.

The first step is finding the right genes to target. “We need to identify the genes responsible or involved in being able to withstand abiotic and biotic stress because otherwise we cannot alter, modify or knock them out by using gene editing,” says Richard Visser, plant geneticist at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

Domesticating crops, tomatoes included, has led to a huge loss of genetic diversity. Modern commercial cultivars may be fast to grow and easy to harvest, but genetically speaking they are plain vanilla. Just four highly homogenised crops – soybeans, rice, wheat and corn – dominate global agriculture, accounting for more than half of all the world’s agricultural land.

In contrast, their wild cousins – as well as so-called landraces (traditional varieties adapted to specific locations) – are a treasure box of genetic diversity. This is why scientists now search this genetic pool to identify traits that can be reintroduced into commercial plants – a process much helped by fast-dropping costs of DNA-sequencing technologies.As climate change alters rainfall patterns, new varieties of drought resistant crops will be needed in areas that struggle with water shortages (Credit: Janos Chiala/Getty Images)

As climate change alters rainfall patterns, new varieties of drought resistant crops will be needed in areas that struggle with water shortages (Credit: Janos Chiala/Getty Images)

One 2021 study looked at the genome of Solanum sitiens – a wild tomato species which grows in the extremely harsh environment of the Atacama Desert in Chile, and can be found at altitudes as high as 3,300m (10,826ft). The study identified several genes related to drought-resistance in Solanum sitiens, including one aptly named YUCCA7 (yucca are draught-resistant shrubs and trees popular as houseplants).

They are far from the only genes that could be used to give the humble tomato a boost. In 2020 Chinese and American scientists performed a genome-wide association study of 369 tomato cultivars, breeding lines and landraces, and pinpointed a gene called SlHAK20 as crucial for salt tolerance.

Once the climate-smart genes such as these are identified, they can be targeted using Crispr to delete certain unwanted genes, to tune others or insert new ones. This has recently been done with salt tolerance, resistance to various tomato pathogens, and even to create dwarf plants which could withstand strong winds (another side effect of climate change). However, scientists such as Cermak go even further and start at the roots – they are using Crispr to domesticate wild plant species from scratch, “de novo” in science speak. Not only can they achieve in a single generation what previously took thousands of years, but also with a much greater precision.

De novo domestication of Solanum pimpinellifolium was how Cermak and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota arrived at their 2018 plant. They targeted five genes in the wild species to obtain a tomato that would be still resistant to various stresses, yet more adapted to modern commercial farming – more compact for easier mechanical harvesting, for example. The new plant also had larger fruits than the wild original.

“The size and weight was about double,” Cermak says. Yet this still wasn’t the ideal tomato he strives to obtain – for that more work needs to be done. “By adding additional genes, we could make the fruit even bigger and more abundant, increase the amount of sugar to improve taste, and the concentration of antioxidants, vitamin C and other nutrients,” he says. And, of course, resistance to various forms of stress, from heat and pests to draught and salinity.Some scientists believe that Crispr's ability to accurately edit the traits of plants could usher in a new green revolution (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Some scientists believe that Crispr’s ability to accurately edit the traits of plants could usher in a new green revolution (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

De novo domestication could also make orphan crops more attractive. These are plants that are grown on a limited scale, but have a great potential to help food security. Groundcherry, a wild cousin of tomatoes which produces subtly sweet berries, is one such crop that has been recently domesticated with Crispr technology. In the near future, de novo domestication could bring crops as cowpea, sorghum and teff — all cereals native to Africa – to a far wider audience around the world. Crispr is also now being used to improve various other plants, from bananas and grapes to rice and cucumbers.

Some scientists believe that Crispr gene-editing marks the beginning of the second green revolution to help feed the fast-growing human population. Yet although the technology does hold a great promise for crop improvement, it’s “not a miracle potion”, Visser says. There are still technical hurdles to address.

“Efficiency of editing can be a problem in some crop species,” Van Eck says. As opposed to diploid plants like tomato (which have paired chromosomes), those that have more than two paired sets of chromosomes (known as polyploid, like wheat), are much harder to work on. “You basically have more copies of a gene in polyploids that need to be affected by Crispr than in a diploid,” Van Eck adds.Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors (Credit: Reuters/Eloy Alonso/Alamy)

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors (Credit: Reuters/Eloy Alonso/Alamy)

Regulation and social acceptance are also an issue. Crispr modified plants can be “transgene-free” – meaning that unlike traditional genetically modified (GM) crops, those created by Crispr technology do not contain DNA from a different species (ie transgenic) – that’s because the technology either involves simply deleting genes, or may involve inserting genes from a different varieties of the same species (as is being done with tomatoes).

Yet, the few existing studies on acceptance of Crispr-edited food products show a mixed picture. In a cross-country survey conducted in USA, Canada, Belgium, France and Australia, people perceived Crispr-edited and GM food similarly. However, in a 2020 Canadian study, consumers were more willing to accept Crispr-edited foods.

And then, there is the law. Although in 2016 Crispr-edited mushrooms fell into a legal loophole in the US and escaped regulation, Europe’s highest court decided in 2018 that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same stringent regulations that govern conventional GM organisms.

For Cermak’s climate-smart “ideal tomato”, such legal hurdles paired with consumer hesitance, could prove a major obstacle.

* This article was updated on 7 January 2022 to change Joyce Van Eck’s affiliation from Cornell University to the Boyce Thompson Institute, where she is primarily based.

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Genetic strategy reverses insecticide resistance

Date: January 14, 2022Source: University of California – San Diego Summary: Using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, scientists have genetically engineered a method to reverse insecticide resistance. The gene replacement method offers a new way to fight deadly malaria spread and reduce the use of pesticides that protect valuable food crops.Share: FULL STORY


Insecticides play a central role in efforts to counter global impacts of mosquito-spread malaria and other diseases, which cause an estimated 750,000 deaths each year. These insect-specific chemicals, which cost more than $100 million to develop and bring to market, also are critical to controlling insect-driven crop damage that poses a challenge to food security.

But in recent decades many insects have genetically adapted to become less sensitive to the potency of insecticides. In Africa, where long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor spraying are major weapons in the fight against malaria, many species of mosquitoes across the continent have developed insecticide resistance that reduces the efficacy of these key interventions. In certain areas climate change is expected to exacerbate these problems.

University of California San Diego biologists have now developed a method that reverses insecticide resistance using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. As described in Nature Communications, researchers Bhagyashree Kaduskar, Raja Kushwah and Professor Ethan Bier with the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) and their colleagues used the genetic editing tool to replace an insecticide-resistant gene in fruit flies with the normal insecticide-susceptible form, an achievement that could significantly reduce the amount of insecticides used.

“This technology also could be used to increase the proportion of a naturally occurring genetic variant in mosquitoes that renders them refractory to transmission or malarial parasites,” said Bier, a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences and senior author of the paper.

The researchers used a modified type of gene-drive, a technology that uses CRISPR/Cas9 to cut genomes at targeted sites, to spread specific genes throughout a population. As one parent transmits genetic elements to their offspring, the Cas9 protein cuts the chromosome from the other parent at the corresponding site and the genetic information is copied into that location so that all offspring inherit the genetic trait. The new gene-drive includes an add-on that Bier and his colleagues previously engineered to bias the inheritance of simple genetic variants (also known as alleles) by also at the same time cutting an undesired genetic variant (e.g., insecticide resistant) and replacing it with the preferred variant (e.g., insecticide susceptible).

In the new study, the researchers employed this “allelic drive” strategy to restore genetic susceptibility to insecticides, similar to insects in the wild prior to their having developed resistance. They focused on an insect protein known as the voltage-gated sodium channel (VGSC) which is a target for a widely used class of insecticides. Resistance to these insecticides, often called the knockdown resistance, or “kdr,” results from mutations in the vgsc gene that no longer permit the insecticide to bind to its VGSC protein target. The authors replaced a resistant kdr mutation with its normal natural counterpart that is susceptible to insecticides.

Starting with a population consisting of 83% kdr (resistant) alleles and 17% normal alleles (insecticide susceptible), the allelic drive system inverted that proportion to 13% resistant and 87% wild-type in 10 generations. Bier also notes that adaptions conferring insecticide resistance come with an evolutionary cost, making those insects less fit in a Darwinian sense. Thus pairing the gene drive with the selective advantage of the more fit wild-type genetic variant results in a highly efficient and cooperative system, he says.

Similar allelic drive systems could be developed in other insects, including mosquitoes. This proof-of-principle adds a new method to pest- and vector-control toolboxes since it could be used in combination with other strategies to improve insecticide-based or parasite-reducing measures to drive down the spread of malaria.

“Through these allelic replacement strategies, it should be possible to achieve the same degree of pest control with far less application of insecticides,” said Bier. “It also should be possible to design self-eliminating versions of allelic drives that are programmed to act only transiently in a population to increase the relative frequency of a desired allele and then disappear. Such locally acting allelic drives could be reapplied as necessary to increase the abundance of a naturally occurring preferred trait with the ultimate endpoint being no GMO left in the environment.”

“An exciting possibility is to use allelic drives to introduce novel versions of the VGSC that are even more sensitive to insecticides than wild-type VGSCs,” suggested Craig Montell (UC Santa Barbara), a co-author on this study. “This could potentially allow even lower levels of insecticides to be introduced into the environment to control pests and disease vectors.”

The study’s authors are: Bhagyashree Kaduskar (UC San Diego and Tata Institute for Genetics and Society), Raja Babu Singh Kushwah (UC San Diego and Tata Institute for Genetics and Society), Ankush Auradkar (UC San Diego), Annabel Guichard (UC San Diego and Tata Institute for Genetics and Society), Menglin Li (UC Santa Barbara), Jared Bennett (UC Berkeley), Alison Henrique Ferreira Julio, John Marshall (UC Berkeley), Craig Montell (UC Santa Barbara) and Ethan Bier (UC San Diego and Tata Institute for Genetics and Society).


Story Source:

Materials provided by University of California – San Diego. Original written by Mario Aguilera. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Bhagyashree Kaduskar, Raja Babu Singh Kushwah, Ankush Auradkar, Annabel Guichard, Menglin Li, Jared B. Bennett, Alison Henrique Ferreira Julio, John M. Marshall, Craig Montell, Ethan Bier. Reversing insecticide resistance with allelic-drive in Drosophila melanogasterNature Communications, 2022; 13 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-27654-1

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Viewpoint: How Bangladesh can use genetic engineering to improve food security

Asma Binti HafizSumon Chandra Shell | Academia | January 10, 2022

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Bt infused eggplants, 'brinjal' are a critical crop for Bangladesh. Credit: Arif Hossain
Bt infused eggplants, ‘brinjal’ are a critical crop for Bangladesh. Credit: Arif Hossain

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

Bangladesh has declared self-sufficiency in food in 2013 with a population of 150 million and continued to maintain the status up till this date as the population has increased by another twenty million. Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

Genetic Engineering is a vital tool for Bangladesh to secure food in its true sense by meeting food needs, reducing poverty, and enhancing environmental sustainability. But, awareness and extent of knowledge and perception on genetic engineering, biotechnology, and GMOs among the people, and especially the producers, are relatively low (Nasiruddin). Here, media, agricultural universities and research institutions, NGOs, political agenda, government policies, and religious bodies have played vital roles in representing Genetic Engineering in food security.For example, bt brinjal, a GMO of Bangladesh, yields 42% higher than the local varieties and reduces 47% of the cost of applying pesticides (Ahmed et al.). But only 17% of the country’s brinjal farmers have adopted this GMO crop (The Wire)

Genetic Engineering has the potential to turn the jolty terrain of food access in Bangladesh into a plane field with sufficient, nutritious, less expensive, and equally distributed food for all the country’s people to meet their dietary needs.

This is an excerpt. Read the original post here.

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Opinion: African farmers can benefit from co-existence of agroecology and biotechnology

Pacifique Nshimiyimana | Cornell Alliance for Science | November 17, 2021

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Credit: GreenBiz
Credit: GreenBiz

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.Can agroecology coexist with modern agricultural technologies? What is the reason for the fight against genetically modified (GM) cowpea or Golden Rice when the world’s most pressing food systems challenge is nutritional and food insecurity?

As the global community marked this year’s World Food Day on Oct. 16, where do African countries stand in respect to food and nutrition security? Is Europe’s antagonism toward certain food production systems and embrace of various ideologies going to expand to Africa too?

As the numbers of communities experiencing food insecurity rise, why are we still supporting divisions in the food system when we need to unite in the critical mission of stopping hunger and extreme poverty among our African population?Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

In my country of Rwanda, the level of malnutrition and hunger leading to stunting among children under the age of five is still alarming, and it’s a scenario that is repeated in many African nations and other developing world countries. Due to the food production challenge, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone 34 percent of children under age 5 are stunted, leading to future generations of people who are mentally and physically impaired and more prone to disease.

In an effort to avoid replicating the mistakes of Western countries, where agroecologists often take hostile and antagonistic stances towards modern biotechnology and the green revolution, African countries are urged to separate themselves from such division for the sake of ending extreme hunger and poverty and meeting the United Nation’s 2030 goal of zero hunger.

African policymakers and world food system leaders are also urged to implement measures that will help African farmers benefit from both agroecology and modern biotechnology. The situation of food production in Africa is so fragile that African smallholder farmers and their communities can’t afford any more divisions in their food systems due to the agroecology movement’s antagonism towards modern biotechnology.

The COVID-19 pandemic and various farming-related plant diseases and insect challenges, like the locust swarms in East Africa, threaten the livelihood of millions. Resilient biotechnology crops that offer protection, like Nigeria’s insect-resistant and drought-tolerant TELA maize and insect-resistant GM cowpea, solve problems and economically empower farmers and rural communities. They should not be subjected to the western style of agroecology hatred towards biotechnology.

“The climate crisis demands that we innovate and give farmers in every country diverse tool kits. Agroecology and biotechnology can co-exist and be mutually supportive,” stated Matt Murray, acting assistant secretary for Economic and Business Affairs in the United States Department of State Department, while speaking at the 2021 World Food Prize.https://www.youtube.com/embed/e8h4F467vgs

Achieving coexistence between agroecology and modern biotechnology in African farming communities will be the turning point in promoting food security on the continent. It will also economically rejuvenate Africa’s large and small producers, who will finally enjoy the freedom of choice over what they produce and how they protect and manage their farming investments.

At a time when an increasing number of African countries are making wise decisions about adopting biotech crops that offer their farmers greater resilience in managing the effects of climate change, it is important to highlight their importance to the livelihoods of small producers.

The reduction of pesticide use that has accompanied the adoption of GM cotton in Kenya and GM cowpea in Nigeria, where the recent approval of TELA maize will also cut insecticide use, helps small farmers with limited means lower their production costs. But even importantly, it reduces the harmful impacts of excessive pesticides on both the environment and the lives of peasant farmers who typically apply these products without any personal protection equipment to guard their health.

This is but one area where agroecology and biotechnology have shared goals. We must now focus on other common goals and values to support, rather than divide, Africa’s farmers.

Pacifique Nshimiyimana is a social entrepreneur and founder of “Real Green Gold Ltd.” He has a graduate degree in Biotechnology from the University of Rwanda.

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly 

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US companies announce plans for gene-edited strawberries


by KEITH RIDLER | Associated PressThursday, October 28th 2021

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Gene-edited strawberry plants grow in a J.R. Simplot Company greenhouse in Boise, Idaho, on Oct. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

Gene-edited strawberry plants grow in a J.R. Simplot Company greenhouse in Boise, Idaho, on Oct. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho company that successfully brought genetically modified potatoes to the market announced an agreement Thursday to help a California-based plant breeding company grow strawberries they say will stay fresh longer and have a longer growing season.

J.R. Simplot Company and Plant Sciences Inc., both privately-held companies, said they expect to launch the first commercially available, gene-edited strawberries within a few years.

U.S. growers produced $2.2 billion in strawberries in 2020, mostly in California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But consumers discarded an estimated 35% of the crop due to spoilage. Simplot and Plant Sciences officials said genetically modified strawberries will help reduce waste, and make them available to consumers much of the year.

The strawberries will contain genes from only strawberries, selecting desirable traits that have been cultivated over decades to combine them through gene editing.

“It’s the same technology we’re working on with potatoes,” said Doug Cole, director of Marketing and Biotech Affairs at Simplot. “We have the opportunity to do that with this technology.”

There is no evidence that genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, are unsafe to eat, but changing the genetic code of foods presents an ethical issue for some. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on Simplot’s genetically-modified potatoes as safe to eat, with over 1.1 billion pounds (500,000 million kilograms) now sold in some 40 states and 4,000 supermarkets and 9,000 restaurants.

Cole said the company submitted information to the Agriculture Department that determined gene editing replicates a natural process and doesn’t need regulatory approval before the strawberries are brought to the market.

Steve Nelson, president and chief executive officer of Plant Sciences Inc., said the company over the last 35 years has developed five distinct breeding populations of strawberries that do best in various growing areas and climate types.

“They possess complex genomes that contribute to long and complex breeding cycles,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to look at large populations of seedlings on an annual basis to make progress with traditional plant breeding.”

Gene editing could speed that up. Nelson said the goal of the partnership with Simplot is to improve the horticultural performance of strawberries, enhance pest and disease tolerance and resistance.

He said for growers, who can spend $35,000 an acre to plant strawberries and another $35,000 per acre to harvest them, gene-edited strawberries could reduce the risk of a crop failure.

Simplot, a multinational agribusiness company with headquarters in Boise, Idaho, in 2018 acquired gene editing licensing rights in an agreement with Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, developers of a gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Simplot was the first agricultural company to receive such a license.

The technology allows scientists to make precise changes to the genome of living organisms and has wide-ranging applications for improving plant food production and quality. It’s been likened to using a search-and-replace function while editing a written document.

The gene-editing technology is called CRISPR-Cas9, the first part an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The technology speeds up the traditional process of breeding generation after generation of plants to get a certain desirable trait, saving years in developing new varieties that are as safe as traditionally developed varieties, scientists say.

Craig Richael, director of research and development at Simplot, said the strawberry genetic code has been mapped, but it’s not clear what traits are associated with all the various parts of the code. He said the company is working with parts of the code that are known, raising genetically modified strawberries at a Simplot greenhouse.

Plant Sciences Inc., headquartered in Watsonville, California, and its affiliates have proprietary rights for more than 50 strawberry and raspberry varieties. The company supplies plants to growers in more than 50 countries.

Simplot and Plant Sciences will make money by selling the genetically modified strawberry plants to growers, who pay a royalty for the rights to grow and sell the strawberries. Terms of the deal weren’t released.

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Kenyan scientists deploy CRISPR to protect bananas from diseases threatening to wipe out the world’s most popular variety

Mihai Andrei | ZME Science | September 29, 2021

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Credit: AfricaME
Credit: AfricaME

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

All the cultivated banana varieties are susceptible to diseases — and Banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) is particularly problematic. BXW is a bacterial disease that has emerged as one of the largest threats to bananas. Overall economic losses from the disease were estimated at US$ 2–8 billion over a decade.Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

With this in mind, researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) scientists in Kenya set out to use genetic modifications to produce more resilient bananas. They used CRISPR/Cas9, a precise but also relatively affordable gene-editing tool, a discovery that earned a Nobel Prize in 2020.

They focused on a gene called downy mildew resistance 6 (DMR6), a gene that has previously been shown to be important for many plants in fighting disease. During pathogen infection, the expression of this gene works to reduce or suppress the plant’s immune function — so if the gene were to be switched off, the plant’s immune system could be turbocharged.

The plants edited with CRISPR showed increased resilience to the disease, in some cases by up to 66% more resilient. Other than the increased resilience, there seemed to be no differences.

This is an excerpt. Read the original post.

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