The scientific community has been energised by news that Chinese officials have approved the use of gene-edited crops.
Food insecurity is present in some form or another on every continent. Current data estimates that 47 countries, predominantly in Africa, will fail to achieve even ‘low hunger’ in the next nine years.
Researchers are confident newly published guidelines surrounding genetically altered crops will provide a significant boost to yields, taste and resilience to pests and disease.
China’s agricultural ministry released early guidelines for the new policy in late January. Since then, numerous applications for the use of gene-editing have been put forward, such as a wheat variety that is resistant to a white fungus called ‘powdery mildew’, prone to affecting the species.
Plant biologist and co-author of the paper dedicated to mildew-resistant wheat, Caixin Gao, said the news was an important step towards commercialising crop-editing.
Gao, who works for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, has worked on developing a strain of wheat that combats mildew since 2014. She and her colleagues’ work may be some of the first to be approved for widespread use.
During their study, Gao’s research team removed the gene that made wheat prone to fungal growths, successfully demonstrating the gene-editing process. However, the team observed that the wheat’s growth post-editing was stunted.
When one crop sample exhibited normal growth, the scientist discovered it was because the particular sample had a partial deletion to a chromosome, meaning that the gene that expressed sugar production was not repressed.
Since the team’s early discoveries, they are confident they have isolated a wheat strain that is both resistant to fungus and produces a satisfactory yield.
It can take as many as six years for researchers to get biosafety clearance for their crops. This is in part because genetically-edited and modified crops require significant large scale field tests.
However, the new guidelines indicate that the waiting time could soon be cut down by as much as two thirds if lab results and successful small scale field tests prove satisfactory. The crop in question must also pose no danger to the environment and China’s food security.
In the wake of China’s new policy, many scientists are hurriedly researching and developing the next high-value gene-edited crops. Jian-Kang Zhu, a biologist working at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, said he wants to work on crops that focus on yield boosts while better responding to worsening climate and poor fertilisers.
Some scientists have begun work on developing a more aromatic rice variety and a soybean variant that produces an oil with low-saturated fat content.
New York-based plant geneticist, David Jackson, said he felt optimistic about the new guidelines but did urge for more large scale testing with a broader crop variety.
The study was an indicator of China’s impressive track record with crop genetics and that the county’s new guidelines should see the nation take advantage of its strong academic lead, said Penny Hundelby, a plant scientist working out of the John Innes Center in Norwich, England.