Today it is almost impossible to get a licence for commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants within the EU. Plant researchers and breeders have therefore placed their hopes on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene scissors.
The authorities in Sweden and Finland have already determined that genetic alternations using the scissors in some special cases (if no new DNA is introduced) cannot be considered genetic modification.
The Swedish decision was made by the Swedish Board of Agriculture in 2015 in response to a request from scientists at Umeå University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU.
“We had to interpret the rules. We went to the European Commission for guidance but they told us that we should interpret the rules ourselves, because the EU administrative law says that nations should not make their citizens wait too long,” said Staffan Eklöf, a GMO expert at the Swedish Board of Agriculture.
The Swedish Board of Agriculture warned back then that the law could be changed when the EU makes a decision on the issue. Then a French court asked for a ruling from the European Court on a case about genetically modified rapeseed. The ruling was handed down in July. But its meaning is not 100 percent clear, according to the Swedish Board of Agriculture.
“We are trying to interpret the ruling. It’s a matter of understanding what it means. If it is not entirely clear, there is a risk of it being interpreted in different ways. EU nations must comply with the decisions of the European Court, but we must first understand those decisions,” says Eklöf.
The European Court ruling has sparked a debate among Swedish scientists, who point to the fact that it lacks a scientific basis. The death knell over modern plant research in Europe has been expanded to include another promising technology, according to researchers Jens Sundström and Torbjörn Fagerström in an op-ed in the DN daily newspaper this summer. “A victory of lobbying over science,” commented their colleague at Umeå University, Stefan Jansson.
One of the scientists behind the discovery that CRISPR-Cas9 can be used as a genetic tool is Emmanuelle Charpentier who is conducting research at a unit she founded at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens. She made the discovery when she was a researcher in Umeå.
“I think we are missing an opportunity. Genetic modification has been used in plant breeding for decades and has widespread support in the research community. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology in particular – which is more precise than past methods – can be used very safely. This technology can be a valuable asset in tackling the effects of climate change and rapidly growing populations,” says Emmanuelle Charpentier.
Since the discovery, the gene scissors have been used to produce a number of robust crops, such as corn that can handle drought or mildew-resistant grapes. Now many researchers fear that the EU ruling will halt development of the CRISPR technology and its use.
“In terms of using the technology in research I don’t think the decision will have any significant impact. The fact that the European Court has decided to keep the technology under the directive doesn’t mean that applications will not be developed in other parts of the world where the rules are less stringent, such as the USA and Asia,” says Charpentier.
Read more in the latest issue of IVA Aktuellt.
In a genetically modified organism, GMO, the genes have been modified to give the organism a new property. A plant can, for example, be given a gene that makes it resistant to drought or to a harmful fungus.
Plant breeders have been using chemical substances or radiation since the 1930s to modify genes to make mutations. They have then looked for desirable changes to characteristics. The mutations were spread randomly and often in several places in the plant’s genome. New varieties produced with these old methods are not classed as GMO under the EU’s rules.
A common method to introduce new genes is to use a small ring-shaped molecule consisting only of DNA. The new gene is spliced into this DNA and the molecule is then often placed into bacteria. The bacteria has a natural path to introduce its genes into plants and it is therefore used to introduce the new gene into the plant. Organisms that have been modified with methods like this are considered GMO.
CRISPR-Cas9 was presented in 2013 and has since spread quickly. CRISPR-Cas9 is part of a natural system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. But it can also be used as gene scissors to quickly, easily and very exactly cut, replace and remove pieces of DNA. Modifications to the genetic material can be made without new genes being introduced from another organism.