Norwich scientists lead the way in gene editing

World-leading gene-editing research taking place at Norwich Research Park will be able to have an even bigger impact once new legislation to reduce regulation is approved. Here we find out why this field of science is so important for future food security.

Scientists at Norwich Research Park have been using gene-editing methods for many years to help speed up the development of more nutritious and disease-resistant plants. New legislation currently going through Parliament proposes that further work in this area will not need to go through unnecessarily strict regulation. So why is this good news, what exactly is gene editing and why is it important?

It’s probably helpful to define what gene editing is first, and also to clarify what it’s not. Gene editing uses technologies to create new varieties of plants and crops that are similar to those which could have been produced more slowly through traditional breeding processes.

Gene editing rapidly speeds up processes that would normally take many years, enabling researchers to discover ways they can grow crops that are more nutritious, more resistant to disease and which, in turn, will require less pesticide treatment.

Gene editing is distinctly different from genetic modification (GM) where the genes of one organism can be transferred to another. In gene editing, only genes that are already in the organism are impacted, either to reduce or increase their activity. Therefore, unlike GM, gene editing, for example, cannot introduce disease resistance where none existed before, but it can significantly enhance what already exists.

Over the past 12 months, the UK government has conducted a consultation on the regulation surrounding GM and gene editing. The proposal to omit gene editing from GM regulation has been greeted as a significant step forward for the many organisations at Norwich Research Park that participated in the consultation.

The new legislation will cut unnecessary red tape for gene editing, enabling researchers in England to undertake plant-based research and development in this area, including field trials, more easily. Ultimately, it will help farmers grow more resistant, nutritious and productive crops, thus helping to provide greater food supplies more quickly to people in need all around the world.

In its announcement, the government included comments from Prof Dale Sanders and Prof Graham Moore at the John Innes Centre and Prof Nick Talbot of The Sainsbury Laboratory, along with case studies from the British Beet Research Organisation and Tropic Biosciences, which all operate out of Norwich Research Park. The fact that the government referred to so many from Norwich Research Park really underlines that it is the UK’s hub for gene editing in plants.

Jo Churchill MP, Minister for Agri-Innovation and Climate Adaptation, said: “New genetic technologies could help us to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our age around food security, climate change and biodiversity loss. Now we have the freedom and opportunity to foster innovation to improve the environment and help us grow plants that are stronger and more resilient to climate change.”

Prof Dale Sanders from the John Innes Centre - Credit: John Innes Centre

Prof Dale Sanders from the John Innes Centre said: “We use gene editing to understand and develop crops which are more nutritious and resilient to climate change and diseases. It provides an opportunity to revolutionise our food systems. However, to benefit fully we have to address the way we regulate this technology.

“This is a step in the right direction that will allow researchers to run more field trials of gene-edited crops. To make the most of these discoveries, we need to translate our science to benefits for consumers by making these products available on supermarket shelves.”

Tropic Biosciences, a company with 110 employees at Norwich Research Park, is employing gene-editing techniques to develop new embryos of banana and coffee plants, as well as new strains of rice. This will create crops that are more resistant to future diseases, thus protecting food supplies and the economies that rely heavily on the production of these crops.

The company’s main focus has been on bananas, which are the fourth largest food crop in the world. The Cavendish banana is the most widely eaten in the world, accounting for around 95pc of all consumption, but is in real danger of succumbing to Panama disease, for which there is currently no effective treatment.

Scientists at Tropic Biosciences are using gene-editing to create banana plants that are resistant to Panama disease - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

From its laboratories in Norwich, the team at Tropic Biosciences are using gene editing to develop strains of this popular fruit that will stand up to the disease and continue to thrive.

CEO Gilad Gershon said: “Our use of gene editing will enable more resilient banana production that is less reliant on chemical pesticides, creating benefits for growers, suppliers and consumers without changing the quality and taste of the fruit we all love.”

With such a concentration of excellence in gene editing at Norwich Research Park, the next step will be to encourage the government towards further changes to legislation that will allow the commercialisation of gene-edited products and deliver further benefits for food production.

Recognising Norwich Research Park as the UK’s leading hub in plant gene editing, the government is sure to take note of what Norfolk scientists and researchers have to say on this topic.

Source: Eastern Daily Press