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New study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Next-generation biotechnological plant-breeding techniques

Companies and research institutes are working on a range of new biotechnological plant-breeding methods. They include Zink Finger Technology and oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis and are designed to speed up plant breeding considerably. A study published recently by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) finds that plant breeders are already using these methods in practice and that commercial applications are to be expected in the foreseeable future. Whether the plants produced using these methods should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not yet clear.

New plant-breeding methods:
Scientists are working on e.g. influencing the traits of apple trees by grafting them onto a genetically modified rootstock. The advantage is that the apples and pollen remain ‘GM-free’

Some of these methods can be used like conventional genetic engineering methods to insert new genes into plants. The difference is that some of the methods use genes that used occur naturally in the species of plant being modified (cisgenesis). Other methods can trigger mutations at very specific locations in the plant genome with the help of artificially produced DNA fragments or special enzymes. The new methods covered in the JRC report also include grafting conventional plants onto GM rootstocks and DNA methylation to disable targeted individual genes.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment commissioned the study to investigate the state-of-the-art of new plant-breeding methods and the possible economic impacts. New methods are regarded as necessary if plant breeding is to continue to play a part in feeding the world’s growing population and if it is to be in a position to adapt crops to foreseeable global climate change. It is hoped that the new methods will accelerate plant breeding.

The report documents that the number of research projects on these methods has risen sharply over the past few years and that over 80 patents have been applied for or granted. The new plant-breeding techniques are already being used commercially by plant-breeding firms even though, according to the report, many of the techniques are not yet fully developed. Nevertheless, the first products could be on the market in two to three years. They include herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, fungus-resistant potatoes and apples, potatoes with lower amylose levels and drought-tolerant maize.

GMO or conventional?

It is not yet clear whether plants produced using the new biotechnological breeding methods should be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or conventional products.

The EU legislation on GMOs dates back to 1990 and so does the definition of what constitutes a genetically modified organism. According to this definition, GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material has, with the help of molecular biological methods, been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by cross-fertilisation or mating in plants and animals, or by natural recombination in micro-organisms.

How a plant is classified determines among other things what restrictions and authorisation costs the plant breeders can expect to face. Authorisation costs for GMOs are several times higher than for conventionally bred products. In many cases, further adoption of the new techniques could therefore depend on whether the products are classed as GMOs. A working group set up by the European Commission has been dealing with this classification issue since 2007 but has not yet published any final results.

If the products of a particular breeding method are classed as GMOs they will have to undergo GMO risk assessments to investigate, for instance, whether the breeding method can trigger unwanted side-effects such as undirected mutations, unintended gene silencing or accidental modification of gene products. According to the report, this is conceivable in the case of some methods. The report does not say what this means in practice for risk assessments and legal regulations.

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