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Trial Testing Gene-Edited, Modified Oilseed Plants

Camelina plant

Camelina plant (Rothamsted Research)

21 May 2018. An agricultural science lab in the U.K. is beginning research on sustainable methods for growing genome-edited camelina plants, along with modifying the plant’s genetics by adding genes from other plant species. The study by Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, England is expected to start later this month.

The research team led by Rothamsted plant scientist Johnathan Napier is studying these techniques to boost production of omega-3 fatty acids in camelina plants. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, camelina was long considered a weed, but is now recognized as an oilseed crop, with oils making up 30 to 40 percent of its seeds’ weight. Camelina oil is marketed largely in Europe in salad dressing and for cooking, for its high content in polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids.

In addition to camelina, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in flax plants — another name for camelina is “false flax” — as well as nuts and fish. Their three main types are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are either made in small quantities in humans or in the case of ALA, not at all. The acids are part of cell membranes and found in higher levels in the eyes, brain, sperm, heart, lungs, immune system, and endocrine glands. Because the body produces so few omega-3 fatty acids, they need to be consumed in food or with supplements.

Napier and colleagues will test genetically modified camelina plants, with genome-edited and wild-type varieties. Some 17 varieties of camelina, genetically modified to include algae genes, will be evaluated for their production of EPA and DHA oils. Other modified varieties are being assessed for production of natural pigments with anti-oxidant properties known as ketocarotenoids, as well as wax esters, another type of fatty acid, and for improved structural traits including stem thickness and photosynthetic capability.

Two of the camelina varieties tested in the trial will be genome-edited. The researchers, with colleagues in France, are editing the camelina genome with Crispr, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, using Cas-9 enzymes to perform the edits. In this part of the study, the team is looking into the feasibility and efficiency of growing genome-edited strains, which the researchers say could produce more precise results and more quickly than with adding genes from different species. Napier adds that the study also “will improve our understanding of lipid metabolism.”

Editing the genomes of plants may also bypass European Union and U.K. rules on genetic modification, which the Rothamsted researchers consider onerous. In a February 2018 essay, Rothamsted crop scientist Nigel Halford notes that genome editing techniques like Crispr-Cas9 knocks out specific genes, causing mutations much like those that occur in nature, such as when plants are exposed to chemicals or radiation. These modifications are already exempt from EU genetic modification regulations, and thus, says Halford,  genome-edited varieties should be exempt as well, since the EU’s rules were drawn up a decade before the emergence of genome editing.

In January 2018, a European court issued a preliminary opinion that any mutation-causing change that could occur naturally should be exempt from the EU regulations on genome modification, ostensibly including genome editing, which the full court is now considering. In March, George Eustice, the U.K. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs answered a parliamentary question in much the same way, saying “the Government’s view is that specific regulation of this technology is not required where the induced genetic change could have occurred naturally or been achieved through traditional breeding methods.”

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