First field trials of gene-edited wheat to take place in the UK

17 Sep 2021

Britain will begin field trials of genetically edited wheat with lower levels of the naturally occurring amino acid, asparagine, industry publication Food Navigator reported. These experiments will be the first agricultural field trials of CRISPR technology in either the U.K. or in Europe.

These trials are slated to span five years through 2026, and funding is in place for the first year. Funding is currently being sought to lengthen these trials.

First field trials of gene-edited wheat to take place in the UK
Image via Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

Following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union last December, the country found itself in a position where gene editing was no longer a restricted technique in the agricultural process per the 2018 ban on gene editing by the European Court of Justice. Almost immediately following the country’s exit from the union, Britain announced its plans to ease gene editing regulations, Reuters reported at the time. Now, scientists at the U.K. research institute Rothamsted Research are in a position to trial CRISPR technology in crop breeding.

Already, lab tests have shown that using gene editing technology to knock out the TaASN2 gene that allows for the formation of asparagine reduces the concentration of this amino acid by 90%.

Researchers chose to first tackle the issue of asparagine in wheat due to its known carcinogenic properties. This amino acid was first discovered in 2002 and was shown to cause cancer in rodents. It is considered ‘probably carcinogenic' for humans due to the conversion of the amino acid into the carcinogenic processing contaminant acrylamide when bread is baked or toasted.

To compare the efficacy of CRISPR technology against the conventionally accepted agricultural technique of chemically-induced mutation, the genetically edited wheat will be grown alongside another crop that uses this widely-used breeding method. Scientists predict that by the third generation of gene edited wheat, the majority of the plants will lose the ability to create this amino acid.

Experts on the issue have argued that gene editing technologies like CRISPR are not to be confused with genetic modification. Gene editing effectively accelerates conventional breeding since gene editing snips out certain genes to prevent protein synthesis rather than inserting foreign genes into plant cells like with genetic modification.

While the wheat from this trial will not be commercially available, leaders on the project told Food Navigator they hope that a successful experiment will lead to legislation permitting food products with edited genomes to become available to consumers in a carefully regulated manner. The scientific journal Nature reported that the British government is already largely in favor of this revised view on gene editing and is interested in proposing diverging regulations for gene editing and genetic modification technologies.

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