DNA double helix

Gene editing is a molecular technique that can be used in agriculture to modify the DNA of plants and animals to improve their traits. 

Unlike traditional breeding methods which take many generations to achieve desired traits, gene editing is precise and can target specific genes to achieve desired outcomes quickly. This is done via ‘gene-editing tools’ such as CRISPR, TALENs and ZFNs.

However unlike genetic modification, gene editing does not introduce foreign DNA from other organisms, rather it makes tweaks to an organisms own DNA. 

This technology has the potential to address various agricultural challenges, such as increasing crop yields, reducing the need for pesticides, and developing more resilient crops to combat climate change.


Key definitions

Gene editing - A precise method for altering an organism's DNA, typically involving the addition, deletion, or modification of specific genes.

CRISPR-CAS9 - A widely used gene-editing tool that acts like molecular scissors to cut DNA at specific locations, allowing for gene modifications.

Genetic modification - The Process of changing the DNA of organisms by introducing foreign DNA elements from other organisms. 

Precision breeding - A range of advanced approaches to plant and animal breeding that utilizes data-driven technologies, genetic information, and scientific techniques to make more targeted and precise decisions in the breeding process. Precision breeding techniques include gene editing, marker assisted selection


Examples of the use of gene editing in agriculture

Disease Resistance: Gene editing can be used to make crops resistant to diseases For instance, researchers have modified the DNA of tomato plants to resist a devastating pathogen called late blight. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides and ensures healthier crops.

Pesticide tolerance: Gene editing can be used to make crops tolerant to certain agrochemical. For examples by modifying crop DNA to be resistant to a particular herbicide mode of action, it means that this herbicide can now be used in a non-selective way, killing the weeds but not the crop. This can also reduce chemical inputs and thus environmental impacts.

Enhanced Nutrition: Scientists have used gene editing to increase the nutritional value of crops. For example, they've enriched the vitamin A content in rice, addressing vitamin A deficiency in regions where rice is a staple food.

Drought Tolerance: Gene editing can help develop crops that can thrive in water-scarce regions. By modifying genes responsible for water use efficiency, crops like maize and wheat can withstand prolonged periods of drought.

Climate-Resilient Crops: With changing climate patterns, gene editing can help create crops that are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. This includes developing heat-tolerant or flood-resistant varieties.

Horticultural crop improvements: Gene editing isn't limited to staple crops. It can also enhance fruits and vegetables. Scientists have created seedless watermelons and mushrooms with extended shelf life through gene editing techniques.


UK Genetic Technology Act 2023

Passed into law on Thursday March 23rd. This act sets in motion regulatory changes covering plants and animals that have been developed through precision breeding techniques such as gene editing, for example allowing farmers to grow gene edited crops with beneficial traits. With the act will come a new science-based regulatory system that differentiates between crops that are ‘gene edited’ vs ‘genetically modified’ (with stricter regulations remaining in place for the latter). Similar legislation has already been introduced by countries such as the US, Australia and Japan. A step-by-step approach is being taken, with use of gene editing being enabled in crops first, followed by animals at a later step in the pipeline.

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