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The Future of Plant Gene Editing: A Q&A with Professor Richard Visser

The Future of Plant Gene Editing Richard Visser

We were delighted to welcome Richard Visser, Professor, Chair and Head of Plant Breeding, Dean of Research, Wageningen University & Research, to the 6th Plant Genomics and Gene Editing Congress, where he presented on the use of novel breeding techniques in practical breeding.

Visser covered a wide range of techniques,  ZFNs, and CRISPR-Cas9. He explored the possibilities and challenges of applying these techniques to a variety of crops, providing examples from his own research, including work with the oil crop Camelina. Visser and his team at Wageningen University & Research successfully applied CRISPR with 2-3% transform efficiency to improve the seed meal from Camelina and improved the nutritional value of the crop by eliminating undesirable traits.

He also touched on the legal status of gene editing in Europe, explaining that the direction that regulation is heading in is unclear and that scientists and companies need clarification in order to proceed with their research. Here, we discuss what this will mean for the future of gene editing in plants.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

Discussing new ideas and results and trying to find an efficient way to solve any questions my peers might have. And then if something indeed proves the way we thought it would, then that’s a great reward. Then you can think about your next experiments, which can get you one step further.

Which crops in particular are you focusing on in your current research?

We are mostly working with vegetable crops, including potato, but also a whole range of other crops. The main idea is to really focus on food crops with the aim to understand certain genetic mechanisms of important traits, which have to do with increasing sustainability, durability, and quality improvement.

What can plant gene editing do for agriculture and global food security?

It’s not a miracle solution for everything. In cross fertilising crops, which are vegetatively multiplied, you can keep your variety and add another trait to it; induce a change so that it is resistant to a particular disease. At the same time, you can try it on the breeding sites to improve variety. It gives you a kind of grace periods in which you can still grow your varieties, which are then more resistant to certain diseases and simultaneously work on breeding better varieties, which can then take their place in the market.

There’s been a lot of confusion about the judicial opinion on the regulation of gene editing in plants. What do you think it will mean for plant scientists and the future of plant gene editing?

In general, the big issue is Europe, where the discussion is on whether gene editing is supposed to be GM or not. Well it is clear that recombinant DNA techniques are used but whether that makes it into a GM and if so whether it should be exempted or regulated is a matter of debate. With 28 different countries all having to agree on the regulation, it’s like having a family meeting, that will never happen. In that respect, Europe is facing a difficult position because around us in the rest of the world, things are moving ahead whether we like it or not.

There are different discussions ongoing, but I think there has to be some relaxation, not deregulation, but relaxation and most of all clarity as to what researchers and companies may expect.

What principles do you think should be put in place so the public can gain confidence in gene editing technology?

I think that’s something we are doing in marketing already. Quite a lot of it involves trying to give as much unbiased information as possible on what is being done.

Contrary to popular believe Nature is very dynamic and a lot is happening which we do or can not control. There is more variation and more gene editing going on in Nature than we probably can ever do as humans. But at the same time, we must make sure that a certain level of control is exercised in putting forward new and safe products on the market.

Do you think the regulation is going to put a strain on the industry?

It depends on the regulations and if they will be similar to how they are now with GM because everyone in Europe claims that GM is forbidden. No, it’s not forbidden, but it’s so difficult in getting clear-cut answers that a lot of companies decide not to get involved in it because it’s too much of a financial risk. There’s too much uncertainty.

Europe is spending a lot of money on research, focusing on these techniques, and yet they are forbidding to put products that use these techniques on the market. That’s a weird solution and it’s a weird situation to be in. Of course, the rest of the world are using the techniques and they are benefiting from all the money and resources Europe puts into it.

That’s why these technologies are thriving in the US, because businesses know where they stand and investors aren’t afraid to invest in these ideas.

Exactly. If you know that it can happen, then you can calculate whether it’s worthwhile doing it, and then you can proceed. But here in Europe, you can start a project, but you never know where you’re going to end or if you’re going to end it. It’s the uncertainty, which is really killing everything.

 To find out more about the next event in the series, please view the agenda for the 6th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: USA.

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