Interview with Channapatna S. (“CS”) Prakash, Ph.D., dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama, USA and co-editor-in-chief of the journal GM Crops & Food, with U.S. Canola Association Director of Communication Angela Dansby
In layman’s terms, how would you describe gene editing?
Gene editing is about rearranging the language of life in living organisms such as canola. You can think of it like editing text on your smartphone. Gene editing is done using enzymes to make small changes in the genetic language, rearranging building blocks of DNA called bases. There are billions of bases in every cell of canola plants. Changing just a few can bring about desirable changes such as a healthier oil. DNA consists of four bases called ATGC. How these letters are arranged determines how genes are expressed.
What is the difference between genetic engineering and gene editing?
Gene editing is not considered genetic engineering because it does not involve the insertion of foreign genes. It is more like traditional breeding in that it works with the natural genetics of plants, but much more precisely and rapidly. It is the difference between lighting a barbecue by waiting for a lightning bolt to hit it or striking a match. Gene editing can knock out genes so they are reduced or unexpressed and/or it can enhance gene expression. For example, certain genes in peanuts can be knocked out to remove allergenicity. Because gene editing does not introduce new genes, most regulatory bodies do not require stringent regulations for crops derived from it unlike genetically engineered crops. It takes companies about $120 million to introduce a single new genetically engineered trait, including 10 years for international regulatory approvals. Gene editing does not require such investment, so it has democratized crop improvement. It allows small companies and public universities to be big players. Scientists can practically do gene editing in their basement!
How can gene editing be used in canola?
Rapeseed was turned into canola with a form of traditional breeding called hybridization back in the 1960s. With gene editing, the possibilities in canola are only limited by the imagination! Currently, biotech companies are using the technology to reduce pod shattering, which can decrease yields by as much 40 percent; build resistance to the white mold Sclerotinia, which can reduce yields by as much as 50 percent; and improve weed control in canola, including herbicide resistance. On the nutritional side, gene editing can make canola produce different types and levels of fats, such as EPA and DHA omega-3 fats instead of alpha-linolenic acid or less saturated fat in favor of oleic acid (monounsaturated fat).
Should gene-edited crops be regulated differently than traditionally bred crops?
No, they should not as long as there is no introduction of foreign genes. Regulators don’t like any unintended changes and most studies show that gene editing does not cause them. Plus, tests cannot detect gene-edited crops. Unfortunately, the European Court of Justice decided in 2018 to regulate gene-edited crops like genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The United States, Australia, Japan and China all disagree. The European decision upset a lot of scientists, who have since been appealing to the European Parliament and European Commission to simplify regulation of gene-edited crops to further sustainable agriculture.
Europeans need to get their facts straight and listen to scientists on matters of science. Europe is home to some of the world’s best biotech companies and academics (the first genetically modified crop was created at the University of Ghent) yet it lags way behind in science policy. Europe will face huge turmoil in next 20 years due to global warming, threatening some of its best loved crops like olives and wine grapes. Gene editing is the best tool to address these problems and reduce ecological footprints. Currently, for no scientific reason, Europe is being foolhardy about plant biotechnology. But there is nothing like a crisis to bring about change.
Will it be easier for countries to accept and adopt gene-edited crops?
Knocking out onerous regulations will open up the use of technology and consumer acceptance. I urge consumers to be open-minded and trust science. Gene editing is an incredible tool for improving crop traits, and thereby our food and health, so let science flourish. With greater consumer acceptance, there will be greater turn-around of products. Quality of life for all will be enhanced.
Europe missed out on the GMO bus, it should not miss the boat on gene editing. It is one of the largest pesticide users in the world – five times that of the United States and Canada! Gene editing can improve the quality of food and feed with less pesticides.
Will genetic engineering go away with gene editing?
Genetic engineering is not going away but it will be used less often. Gene editing is the top solution today. But some improved crops like Bt cotton or vaccine development cannot be done with gene editing. For instance, the Ebola vaccine was produced in genetically modified tobacco in Kentucky. Similarly, a vaccine for COVID-19 could be produced in greenhouses via genetically modified plants. We need access to both types of modern biotechnology.
How will gene editing impact the future of agriculture?
Gene editing brings us back to traditional breeding with greater speed and precision; it is a knowledge-based approach with an incredible knowledge trajectory. There are hundreds of variations of gene editing. Over 1 million scientists worldwide are working on gene editing research, primarily with the CRISPR technique on biomedical research. (CRISPR has just been used to develop a rapid COVID-19 diagnostic.) But the knowledge is easily transferrable to crop research. Almost every common living organism has been genetically sequenced so it’s easy for scientists to identify genes responsible for certain traits. Those genes can be dialed down to reduce undesirable traits, such as browning in potatoes and apples. Or genes can be dialed up to express traits in new plant parts such as beta carotene in grain to create golden rice.