How Britain’s Precision Farming Bill Could Unleash Gene Editing

The UK is considering reducing restrictions on genetically modified crops. PacBio’s Neil Ward discusses how the changes could impact the gene editing landscape.

CRISPR gene-editing technology has changed the game in the biotech industry by making it easier than ever to make small changes to the genome. In addition to a myriad of healthcare applications, the tool could be used to produce new breeds of crops more efficiently than traditional breeding techniques.

Gene editing technology allows the insertion, deletion or switching of nucleotide base pairs – the building blocks of DNA – into small parts of the genome: a more targeted version of selective breeding or the introduction deliberate mutations in cultured strains with chemicals or radiation. In contrast, traditional genetically modified organisms (GMOs) contain whole genes from foreign organisms and cannot arise naturally.

“There is a huge body of scientific evidence that modern gene manipulation tools, whether CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing or other methodologies, are frankly safer than the methodologies that have historically been used. over the past hundred years,” said Neil Ward, vice president. and EMEA Managing Director of the American DNA sequencing player Pacific Biosciences (PacBio).

In a landmark 2018 decision, the EU applied the same strict regulations to genetically modified organisms as to GMOs. Although some groups endorse this classification, the regulations are widely considered in the biotech industry to be inappropriate because it is very difficult to detect these organisms in imports, and the controls are likely to inhibit technology that could improve food safety worldwide.

“The EU has taken a conservative stance for a number of years on genetic modification, gene editing and genetics in agriculture as a whole,” Ward said. “It’s been a very different path than the one taken by North American regulators.”

When part of the EU, the UK had to follow the same rules as the bloc. Now that the nation is out of the club, however, the UK government is aiming to make reforms. A bill called the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill entered the UK parliament earlier this year, proposing that genetically modified organisms should be treated with less regulatory scrutiny than traditional GMOs, allowing new foods to enter faster on the market. The bill will be debated by MPs before moving forward in the legislative process.

Neil Ward joined PacBio in mid-2021 to help the company expand its sequencing platforms to Europe, Middle East and Africa. In his career spanning more than two decades, he has worked at life science heavyweights including Illumina, Agilent and Oxford Biomedica, in addition to major genomics initiatives including Genomics England’s 100,000 Genome Project and the Estonian Genome Project. Now that he is at PacBio, he is following with great interest the development of the current bill in the UK.

“[PacBio has] a lab in London now able to collaborate with all kinds of researchers looking to use genomics technology,” Ward said. “If we are to put it bluntly, we believe that the opening up of the regulatory landscape in the UK will allow significant investment in other companies in the UK which will, at the root, need further genomic sequencing. So in many ways it will be good for our business but also good for humanity.

The UK has many institutions at the forefront of genomics, biodiversity studies and genetic engineering, with examples including Kew Gardens, the John Innes Center and the Roslin Institute, famous for cloning the sheep Dolly in the 1990s. Ward sees the potential loosening of restrictions on genetically modified crops as a way to help these institutions grow with more funding and hopefully create startups.

“We still have some way to go to catch up with the investments that have been made in North America, certainly in the private sector over the past few years,” Ward explained.

If the UK Precision Farming Bill becomes law, we will have to wait a few more years before we see any impact on society. While many safety studies involving gene editing and agriculture have already been completed in the US, Ward sees the UK proceeding with caution.

“Even if there are approvals to move forward from a government perspective, it is going to be done in a way that involves the general public,” he commented. “We don’t want to suddenly flood the market with products that don’t have a proper safety track record.”

Also, Ward said, new crop breeds will take a few years to develop, as researchers must identify what modifications need to be made and then grow the plants to maturity. “While there may be significant investment over the next five years in growing this technology base and ecosystem, I believe the real time for a new product to hit the shelf at your favorite supermarket chain is probably within the 10-year timeframe, not within the 10-year timeframe,” he noted.

Even with the decrease in legal hurdles, there are still many challenges to the adoption of gene editing technology in agriculture. For example, gene editing players are trying to overcome the “shotgun” approach of traditional breeding techniques, but knowing where to make the changes is difficult unless you have a map of the genome in question. PacBio uses its genomics platform to refine the approach and accelerate crop research.

“Once you have a clear and precise map, you can start using precise gene-editing tools to change and modify and understand how genetics come to life,” Ward said.

Another common challenge raised by opponents of GMOs is that genetically modified crops may contain traces of off-target mutations in addition to DNA remnants of gene-editing machinery in plant cells. The UK Food Standards Agency aims to establish safety requirements around these changes in future regulatory processes, and sequencing could prove vital in this endeavour.

Then there are also broader issues to consider with the commercialization of GM crops, such as the encouragement of unsustainable farming practices and the worsening of inequalities in the food supply chain, with large corporations having more power. grip on farmers. According to Ward, the company will have to find its way through these thorny issues and keep up with changing technology.

The UK is not the only European body to reconsider its position on the classification of genetically modified crops. The European Commission launched an initiative last year to assess public attitudes towards the use of gene editing in food production and is currently considering whether regulations should be changed to ease restrictions on the use of gene editing. precision breeding. Ward suspects the EU will be watching carefully what happens to the UK’s efforts to change its system for regulating GM crops.

“I would understand if the EU takes a more consultative and thoughtful point of view as it tries to build consensus on all the different perspectives and opinions within the Union,” Ward concluded.