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The following article is an opinion piece written by Neil Ward. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
The recent passing of the Genetic Technology “Precision Breeding” Act in England’s parliament is a landmark moment for both England’s agricultural sector, and the global effort to sustainably increase food production. The Act allows for gene editing techniques to be used to grow more nutritious, higher yielding and pest- and disease-resistant foods faster than traditional crossbreeding. The legislation comes against a backdrop of a rapidly changing climate that is contributing to crop failures and shortages, such as those experienced by the UK with tomatoes and peppers this winter, as a result of bad weather in Spain and Morocco. The impact of pest species, which already contribute to the loss of 40 percent of global crops, is also worsening.
It’s therefore hugely encouraging to see governments turning towards agrigenomics to tackle these food sustainability and security challenges. But before these crops reach our plates, there is still a thorough research and quality control pipeline ahead. Here, we look at what needs to happen next to realize the benefits of this new legislation, including the critical role of the latest genomic sequencing technology.
Don’t underestimate crop complexity
For millennia, farmers have been attempting to improve the next generation of crops by crossing strains that have desirable traits. Today, modern agrigenomics techniques can accelerate this process, allowing more precise changes to be made with fewer unintended mutations.
Long-read genomic sequencing technology is central to the development of gene-edited crops, enabling scientists to build a complete map of a plant’s genome and identify structural variations and genes that correspond to favorable traits. Plant genomes can be extremely complex, with some wheat varieties having more than five times as much DNA as the human genome. Many novel genes responsible for traits like immunity, metabolic detoxification and pesticide resistance are typically hidden within these complex genomes, and too large to reliably discover with short-read sequencing, which only examines fragments of DNA. Equally as important as read length is accuracy, which is critical for verifying that intended genetic changes have taken place, and monitoring for the introduction of any unintended changes.
However, until recently, long-read sequencing has been hindered by lower throughput and higher cost, making it challenging to incorporate into large studies that require many seeds and soil microbe species to be sequenced. Without sequencing at scale, researchers cannot access the biological insights that will inform the production of more nutritious food, preventing us from realizing the benefits of the Precision Breeding Act.
An evolution in sequencing technology
The good news for agricultural scientists is that sequencing technologies have advanced alongside legislation. Long-read sequencing instruments are now faster, more affordable and more accurate than ever before, and have simpler workflows for scientists in the lab. For example, in the US, Corteva Agriscience has shifted from a single tube protocol to a 96-well plate-based method to enable the sequencing of tens of thousands of samples annually for its seed and crop protection research.
Additionally, progress in the sensitivity and specificity of sequencing technology means there are fewer errors in read data. Therefore, scientists can have higher confidence in each edited base, so modified crops can be shared with regulators sooner. Overall, these developments will make molecular-level insight into crop complexity available to a wider pool of researchers, beyond the large companies currently paving the way.
What’s next for the Precision Breeding Act?
The new act is extremely positive for both food security and England’s thriving life sciences sector, which has always been a leader in genomics. But signing the bill is only the first step. To get more nutritious, higher yielding crops to consumers, there will need to be significant investment in genomics research and arming scientists with the most accurate technology, so they can be confident in their decisions.
The importance of public education should also not be overlooked. Gene-edited foods could be easily confused with genetically-modified crops, which involve the introduction of genes from other species. The Precision Breeding Act only allows genetic changes that could have been produced through traditional crossbreeding programs, and the distinction between these methods should be made clear. The proven safety of precision breeding must be amplified to ensure that by the time these foods go from farm to fork, we can reap the nutritional benefits.
About the author:
Neil Ward is the vice president and general manager for the PacBio’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region.