Revamp of UK CRISPR regulation will require public trust

2021-03-16

The United Kingdom is considering innovative ways of regulating gene editing in food and farming. Robust processes and public confidence will be vital for success.

Thirty years ago, few would have dreamed of Nigel Halford’s wheat.

On 26 February, the plant biologist at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, and his colleagues unveiled a line of wheat plants that produce less of an amino acid, known as free asparagine, that can serve as the precursor for acrylamide. This is a chemical that has been linked to cancer and is formed when some foods are fried, baked or toasted1. So far, the wheat has not been tested in the field, but the hope is that flour made from it could be used to bake breads that produce less acrylamide than does conventional bread when toasted.

To create their low-asparagine wheat, the researchers used the genome-editing technology CRISPR to do something comparatively simple: they created small changes — often deleting a snippet of DNA — in the gene responsible for asparagine synthesis.

Did Halford and his colleagues modify the wheat genome? Technically, yes, because they changed the plant’s DNA. But should the wheat be called ‘genetically modified’, or ‘GM wheat’? The European Union thinks so, but many geneticists say that with the advent of tools such as CRISPR, gene editing should no longer be synonymous with GM.

Historically, definitions of GM technology in agriculture have referred to transgenics, the insertion of foreign genes into plant cells, often with no control over where those genes land in the genome. These are among the reasons why commercialization of GM technology is effectively banned in the EU. But many researchers say that most current applications of gene editing using CRISPR produce the kinds of change that could have been achieved by conventional breeding, just much more efficiently.

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Nature.com, 16 March 2021
; https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00672-1