Cisgenesis: new dawn on food production?

posted in: Science | 9

As I was reading the column in the current issue of Nature by Brian Heap on Europe’s stance on GM crops, I wanted to update myself more on the developments that are currently ongoing in this realm. In spite of the vast progress being made in world of transgenics, the heavy regulation from EU and other South American countries such as Brazil and Argentina has certainly put a dent on the implementation of use of these crops. The plants produced by the cisgenesis or intragenesis technology seem like a savior in these GM hostile areas.

3 kinds of genetic engineering defined. By KJHvM

As for the safety regulation, of course one could argue otherwise. Yet, at the very least, its not all bad news. The Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council dictates and regulates the release of GM crops. The three strong proponents of the technology, Schouten, Jacobsen and Krens have argued for the complete exemption from regulation. This was followed by the joint scrutiny from the NTWG, The Joint Research Centre and The Institute for Prospective Technological Studies to understand if the techniques constituted genetic modification. The European Food Safety Authority (EPSA) conducted parallel evaluations. Alright, lets not get disheartened completely. Although the intragenics came back with more associated risks due to the possibility of recombination of individual genetics elements, the cisgenics fared far better.

Finally the EPSA also concluded in their 2012 report that all four techniques in question – cisgenics, intragenics, transgenics and conventional plant breeding posed inherent risks due to the source of the genes, traits manifested and changes to the genome. The level of risk associated with cisgenics was similar to those created by conventional breeding. Sigh of relief? Maybe! The EFSA also opined that both cis- and intragenics would be subjected to the GM-guidance for food safety and environmental risks although the data required risk assessment could be reduced on a case by case basis.

Things have looked slightly better on the home front. The EPA has proposed to exempt the cisgenics designed to express plant protectants although the same technology designed to express other traits would have to be approved by USDA.

All in all, it might be possible to see changes happening sooner that we might have imagined. The willingness among the consumers reflects this. One survey in US even reported that consumers are willing to pay more if the plants were nutritionally improved. To me, the biggest benefit I see is the time reduction factor as compared to the regular breeding process and the myriad other traits that could be potentially improved. I also wonder as I write this if there could be other indirect implications such as improved preservation of the germplasm of various crops, improved environmental benefits, possible sustainable production and more?

Although it still imposes a certain level of restriction on how much one could tweak, nevertheless at the very least it is a step forward in a good direction.

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Sujatha works as a scientist at Metabolix, Cambridge. She is from India and has lived in the States since 2000, and has been working with plants the whole time. She sincerely hopes that we as the plant community are able to find ways to feed every single mouth on this planet.