Gene editing is exciting crop scientists and breeders. It allows the DNA of a crop to be precisely tweaked to improve them. Enthusiasm is mounting around its potential to boost resistance to pests and diseases in crops. Irish farmers, however, could miss out because of a European Court of Justice ruling earlier this summer.
Invented by Jennifer Doudna, the power of Crispr for agriculture was first shown in a gene edit of mushrooms by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh.
Breeding a new variety of potato usually takes 12 years with traditional methods, but gene editing can do this in 2 or 3 years, said Dr Ewen Mullins, crop scientist at Teagasc. The most popular technique is called Crispr, which spawns all sorts of catchy headlines about Crispr vegetables. Remarkably, Crispr gene editing was first used on plants only in 2013.
“However, the European policy right now is for gene edited varieties to be labelled as GMOs, which in effect has put a pause on research that was building up,” said Dr Mullins.
European breeders got a shock in July when the European Court of Justice ruled that gene edited crops must be regulated as GMOs. While gene editing changes a plant’s own genes, the older technique introduced genes from other organisms, including bacteria, so was viewed by scientists very differently.