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Using gene editing as a precision tool – A guest blog - 1 February 2021

Other than COVID-19, the big science news in 2020 was that the Nobel Prize in chemistry had gone to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who discovered the technology now called Gene editing writes Prof Colin D Campbell, Chief Executive, James Hutton Institute.

It is by far the sharpest tool yet in the molecular biology toolbox for changing the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms with high precision. The technology, which uses enzymes from microorganisms to find and repair genetic sequences, is challenging whether this should even be classified as genetic modification as it is a natural repair process indistinguishable from natural mutations.  

With the potential to treat cancer, cure inherited diseases, and develop new vaccines, few have any issue with this technology when it comes to saving human lives. The benefits are so patently large, the risks negligible and what risk there is, is carried by and chosen by the individual. However, views change when it comes to crops in the wider countryside, where the perception is everyone is sharing the risks and yet many remain unconvinced that they benefit equally.

There are significant differences between new gene editing (GE) techniques and the techniques associated with genetic modification (GM), and major benefits if we agree what it is we are trying to achieve. GM approaches use relatively large, often foreign, DNA to change the crop. In gene editing the repair enzymes are used to edit a small section of the DNA - no external DNA is inserted in the host. Existing genes can be activated or deactivated to gain benefit, making it less intrusive and more accurate.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an international declaration of what gene editing is and affirms that it is different from other GM technologies. However, the EU Court of Justice has ruled that GE cannot be dealt with any differently from GM. We are waiting on the EU revisiting this in April this year and having left the EU the UK government is conducting a consultation via Defra on how to proceed.

At the James Hutton Institute we use GE and GM techniques to understand crop growth. We can then use this greater insight to produce new varieties by conventional breeding approaches. We are at the forefront of new GE research in crops. For example, with collaborators in Australia we published our first experimental paper using gene editing to understand an important component of Barley, called beta-glucan, which conveys several health benefits to people or livestock eating it. Such health benefits are badly needed. We also study the ecological risks and benefits of GM in EU funded projects and field trials. This includes studying people and communities to understand their perceptions of the benefits, risks and attitudes to the environment and agriculture.

We like to think we see all sides of the debate and often have lively internal discussions on this topic. We agree we need regulation and risk assessment that is proportionate to the risks and needs of society. In fact, we think all new crop varieties need to be assessed properly in an equitable way, whatever technology has been used to develop them. This is because even conventional breeding methods, and existing ways of mutating crops, can select plants that have unintentional outcomes or disbenefits, and may otherwise miss proper assessment.

It is extremely important to acknowledge that society is divided on these issues. Often differences in opinion are about governance issues centred around who owns, controls, and benefits from the technology, and/or it is concerns about the unknown interactions with natural environments and wildlife. Sometimes there is also opposition from businesses based on the judgement that consumers are wary, and the risks to the brand outweigh the benefits.

So how can we progress the conversation on GE? The UK government will publish their consultation in due course, but in Scotland we have different biophysical conditions, different crops, a different mix of agriculture sectors, and people that may have different values and opinions. Public attitude surveys have been used in the past, but they only provide a snapshot of people’s awareness and views on an issue. They do not provide an opportunity to listen to all sides or any new information.

In Scotland we have previously used Citizen Juries on a range of topics, and to good effect. These usually involve gathering randomly selected representatives of the population to hear a range of expert views on the subject, before being asked to discuss, elaborate, and define their viewpoints. It is a more informed and constructive way of arriving at a consensus and can provide a stronger basis for policy development.

More generally we are aware that the needs of society are changing rapidly, and we need to decide what type of agricultural systems we want and need in the future. We will need new varieties of crops and livestock. These new systems will have greater resilience to variable weather and put more back into the soil than they extract, designed with more “public good traits” that benefit nature and mitigate climate change.

While supporting such a future will take time, we need to start talking about it quickly, ensuring that there is an open, transparent, and informed debate.

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