THE ROI ON DNA
BY GEOFF GEDDES • LEAD PHOTO COURTESY OF JASWINDER SINGH
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recently approved gene editing for use in breeding new crop varieties. Plant breeders will now be able to apply the technology to their work. Gene editing has the potential to quickly develop new varieties with greater accuracy in targeting traits such as drought and disease resistance. The agronomic and trade implications are promising for farmers.
“Gene editing is one of the best things to happen to crop breeding in a very long time,” said Jaswinder Singh, associate professor at the McGill University Department of Plant Science.
Unlike GMOs, gene editing does not involve the introduction of new genetic material, which has made it less controversial with consumers than GMO technology. CRISPR is the main gene editing tool now in use. It allows scientists to locate and alter specific DNA segments within plant cells or turn them on or off.
SMALL CHANGES, BIG IMPACT
“Gene editing is more a fine tuning of genes already present in the plant,” said Singh. “By making small changes in the nucleotide [the building block of DNA and RNA], we can have a major impact on disease resistance and the ability to deal with abiotic stresses such as temperature, water and UV radiation.”
The process can be used in the creation of new crop lines and to tweak existing varieties that lack a certain trait of interest to farmers. “The CFIA announcement means that people like me—scientists and academics—are able to make these changes in the lab for the benefit of end-users,” said Singh.
In addition to enhancing the precision of plant breeding, gene editing can also shave years from the timeline for new variety development. “With conventional breeding, it often takes five to 10 years to enhance an elite cultivar and make it market ready,” said Andriy Bilichak, a research scientist with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Cereal Morden Research and Development Centre in Morden, MB. “Contrast that with gene editing, which can accomplish the same in one to two years.”
In part, this new chapter of the gene editing story provides certainty, which is critical for crop research and development in the Canadian agriculture sector. “Research communities need clear guidelines and rules on how their products will be governed,” said Shannon Sereda, senior manager, government relations and policy for Alberta Grains. “This CFIA decision will send clear signals to the research community that their work can proceed.”
Equally important, gene editing has a major role to play in helping Canadian farmers compete on the world stage.
BEAR DOWN AND KEEP UP
“Our major trading partners, the U.S., Australia, Japan and New Zealand, have all had guidance in place regarding gene editing,” said Sereda. “They’ve been able to leverage investment in this area and are much closer to having products in the marketplace that leverage this technology. This will hopefully get us back on pace with that kind of innovation and growth.” Although the EU is now looking at softening its regulations around gene editing, there is clearly much to consider when it comes to trade and cutting-edge technology.
Krista Zuzak is director of crop protection and production for Cereals Canada. While optimistic about the potential for gene editing to boost international trade, she also preaches caution. “In assessing the marketability of any new product, meeting export and marketing requirements is a key component. Canadian wheat is exported to over 80 countries, so there are many markets to consider when rolling out this technology. We must ensure we are transparent about the use of gene editing to maintain the reputation of our wheat and the trust of consumers.”
To derive the greatest benefits from gene editing, the crop sector is now at work on several fronts.
DON’T WAIT TO INTEGRATE
“A top priority is integrating these tools into our ongoing breeding programs to produce more field-ready varieties by investing in the training of staff and enhancing technological capacity,” said Nasima Junejo, Alberta Grains research director. “Gene editing may lead to increased food supply in the international market and could also impact prices.”
Though prospects for the international marketing of gene edited crops are potentially good, Junejo sees the need for a strategic approach to maximize return on investment. “We can compete by producing crops of higher quality at competitive prices. The focus on developing drought resistance and nitrogen-efficient genotypes is another way to compete in the market. This is a unique niche because mitigation of climate change and greenhouse gases are worldwide goals.” She also noted AAFC has recently developed a strategic science plan to update its research programs by including new areas such as AI technology and gene editing.
As with any emergent technology, gene editing offers both obstacles and opportunity. For breeders, it represents a powerful tool that can make precise and predictable genome modifications to plants to obtain desired traits. Breeders also need gene editing to speed up the development process of new varieties with improved traits for domestic and international markets.
At the same time, Junejo noted gene editing and its future application in Canada are beyond the expertise of plant breeders today. “Despite the deregulation of gene edited crops in Canada and worldwide, implementing technology at a wide scale in breeding programs is still limited. The approach relies heavily on efficient tissue culture, and only a handful of labs in Canada have the expertise and resources to do wheat and barley transformation and generate gene edited plants.”
WORKING AS ONE
To ensure success, the integration of gene editing in Canadian breeding programs requires a collaborative approach among scientists. “The future will likely involve breeders providing the starting material for genetics, biochemistry and artificial intelligence experts to take over and produce edited genomes,” said Junejo. “Improved varieties would then be returned to the breeders and agronomists for field evaluation. AI will use data from biochemistry and genetics and comparative genomics from wild species to perform high-tech genomic selection-type experiments, where gene-edited mutations would be incorporated to achieve desired characteristics and improve crop performance.”
Fortunately, Canadian breeders appear well prepared to grow breeding material in the field and evaluate its performance. “Also, collectively, they have elite material bred for different regions worldwide,” said Junejo. “They are ready to work with experts in gene editing and artificial intelligence to develop the next generation of crop plants. Breeders can provide starting material and finishing evaluations, but the middle part needs funding and development.”
Other considerations for industry include the availability and licensing of gene editing technology such as CRISPR/Cas9. “If there are going to be some royalties associated with this technology, only the larger companies can afford to use it for developing new varieties,” said Bilichak.
Fortunately, there are other gene editing tools such as the similar Mad7 that are not protected as intellectual property and advertised as a non-exclusive tool for use by anyone. “Availability is critical, as we want to keep gene editing accessible for non-profit organizations,” said Bilichak.
BREAK OUT THE BUBBLY?
Though industry awaits guidelines from the CFIA for use of gene editing in the feed sector, no timeline on their release has been given. In the meantime, there is much to celebrate for all concerned. “For the crop sector at large, it’s a really positive news story,” said Sereda. “It still allows the activation of research and development in this area, and getting products to market is now a much clearer pathway for researchers.”
Just as transparency is a key element of gene editing on the trade front, it is equally vital at home. “It’s critical to our sector that farmers have market choice,” said Sereda. “They need to know how their seed products were developed and be able to choose from a variety of products developed by different methods. Farmers must be able to choose their seed based on market demand. For instance, to serve those markets, organic farmers can’t use gene-edited seed. That transparency piece is really important.”
Despite the hurdles, access to gene editing for Canadian farmers appears to have been well worth the wait. “Canadian agriculture is so dependent on scientific advancements to aid sustainability,” said Zuzak. “Technology like gene editing will help support our focus on providing safe, high-quality cereals to our customers around the world.”