What if science could edit the DNA of the castor bean so that it does not contain ricin, second only to plutonium as the most toxic compound on the planet? What if we could make peanuts that did not cause deadly allergic reactions, wheat that will not cause problems for those with coeliac disease, or make animals immune to devastating viruses?
This is all possible now due to cutting-edge agricultural science where researchers are applying genomic editing technology to crops and livestock.
It remains a nascent industry with few commercialised products, but the pipeline is growing and the potential is massive. In Britain, investment and development in genomic editing crops and livestock over the past few years have been curtailed by the EU, which bans both genetically modified and genetically edited organisms. After Brexit that all appears set to change.
A government consultation looking at severing the tie between genomic editing and genetically modified will effectively lift the blanket ban on genomic editing, making it easier for companies and research institutions to plough money into this growing industry and turn their work into commercial products.
This is exciting news for people like Professor Johnathan Napier, of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, one of the world’s oldest agricultural research stations. One of his many projects aims to use genomic editing to reduce acrylamide in wheat, a carcinogenic substance released when bread is toasted. Rothamsted has 15 hectares (37 acres) dedicated to tightly controlled genomic editing experimentation, but until now it has never been more than that.
“Now we can think about how we can capture these great discoveries and commercialise them, our ambition is global,” Napier says.
Under EU rules there was “almost zero chance” for approval to cultivate and commercialise a GE crop. “That is what has stopped us. But in agricultural research and science the UK punches above its weight, so if we can harness all of the innovation in plant science it could give us a competitive advantage, and allow us to do societal good and give us some income too,” he says.
Speeding up nature
The EU’s treatment of genomic editing as the same as genetically modified is at odds with most other countries, which view the two as separate.
Foreign DNA is introduced into an organism for genetic modification. Genomic editing, however, uses “scissors” to edit a DNA sequence by removing a gene at a very precise point, rather than adding genetic material. Unlike GM, this results in a genetic change that could have happened naturally or taken scientists many years to achieve using the conventional tools of cross-breeding.
“In plants, mutations occur naturally all the time and in conventional breeding where you cross two plants together you have no control of all the DNA that gets jumbled up, whereas using gene editing you can be extremely precise.”
Taped to the wall in one of Rothamsted’s research labs are two pieces of wheat. One is an old variety – a long stem, with a small head containing tiny kernels. The other, a variety bred in the 1950s, has a short stem, with large, plump kernels that yields six times as much wheat per hectare. “People think agriculture and farming have been unchanged for years, when actually it is evolving all the time and GE will just be a part of that evolution,” Napier says.
Professor Wendy Harwood, who leads the crop transformation group at Norwich’s John Innes Centre, agrees genomic editing is speeding up what historically has taken decades through traditional breeding but says caution is needed. “It is a huge advantage, but it also means you perhaps have to be a little more careful.”
Like Napier, Harwood reckons the industry is on the cusp of a boom. “If the regulation changes, the UK would become a much more attractive place for research.”
The future of modern agriculture
She also raises another interesting point: gene editing has democratised the agritech sector, and allowed small companies to compete in a field previously dominated by the agri giants such as Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont. They have been the only ones with the financial firepower to commercialise GM products.
Down the road from Harwood, a start-up called Tropic Biosciences is working on gene editing bananas, coffee beans and rice in the hope of making them easier for farmers in developing countries to cultivate.
Bananas are the most consumed fruit in the world and Tropic’s most advanced project. It hopes to launch a genetically edited variety in the next three years resistant to Panama disease, which is devastating crops.
Tropic was founded in 2016 and despite employing only 100 people is one of the world’s largest agricultural gene editing companies globally.
Gilad Gershon, the chief executive, says genomic editing – along with Crispr, the technology now widely used to cut into DNA – is allowing smaller players to break into the market.
“It’s not a question of should it be regulated or not, it is all a regulated space, it is a question of what is the right measure. If the regulatory process is 15 years and costs £150m and funnels all research into just corn, cotton and soybean that’s not great. If you want to make it accessible to others it needs to be more right-sized-regulation. We don’t want to tie our hands behind our backs,” says Gershon.
Tropic has raised about $43m (£31m) since it was founded from investors including Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek, Pontifax AgTech, Five Seasons Ventures and Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation.
“These crops have seen limited investment in R&D and could benefit massively,” Gershon adds.