Gene-edited tomatoes: British scientists create tomatoes with ‘pimped’ vitamin D | Science and technology news


British scientists have used gene-editing technology to create a souped-up tomato that packs as much vitamin D as two eggs or a serving of tuna.

The development comes the same week that the government will propose a change in legislation that will make it easier to develop and sell GM crops.

Scientists at the John Innes Center in Norwich created the tomato by turning off one of its genes.

Tomatoes naturally produce plenty of the chemical precursor to vitamin D, but the plants typically use this to make other biochemicals they need.

By deleting the gene that runs this chemistry in the plant, the researchers increased levels of the vitamin D precursor. Ordinary sunlight falling on the leaves and fruit then converts the chemical into vitamin D3.

“Forty percent of Europeans and one billion people worldwide are vitamin D deficient,” said Professor Cathie Martin, who led the study published today in the journal Nature Plants.

“Tomatoes could be developed as a plant-based sustainable source of vitamin D3,” she said.

Gene editing (GE) is fundamentally different from traditional genetic modification or GM technologies. Most genetically modified products contain a synthetic gene or a gene from another organism that has been inserted into the plant or animal of interest.

For example, insect-resistant cotton and soybeans, which are widely grown around the world, contain a gene originally found in bacteria.

Gene editing, on the other hand, alters the characteristics of an animal or plant by deleting, swapping, or repeating genes already present in the organism’s genetic code.

Currently UK legislation – copied from European law – does not distinguish between GM and GE and makes it virtually impossible to place GM products on the market.

On Wednesday, the government is introducing the Genetic Technologies (Precision Breeding) Law, which aims to massively curb gene editing regulations. The aim is to reduce the time it takes to bring a genetically modified product to market from years to months.

Fundamental to the change in the law is the distinction between GM and GE. She argues that changes induced by gene editing could theoretically be introduced by conventional breeding techniques.

Developers must prove that their product could have come about “naturally”. Existing restrictions on genetically modified technologies remain in place.

The changes will initially only apply to plants and will only be extended to GM animals once potential animal welfare issues have been addressed.

Many environmental groups still oppose gene editing, arguing that it is in no way “natural” since it involves a first step of inserting foreign DNA into the plant to perform the editing (it is then removed again).

The law change opens the door to increasingly invasive moves, says Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM.

She said: “It is completely misleading that gene editing does not involve inserting foreign genes.

“In fact, gene editing is a set of technologies ranging from a simple cut to the complex insertion of foreign genes. And the traits that scientists are really excited about, things like disease resistance and drought resistance, just can’t be achieved without these complex technological interventions.”

Clarke tomatoes

It’s a looming challenge for environmentalists. Conventional farming has a major negative impact on the environment. In theory, gene editing could help address these issues.

Modifying crops to be disease or pest resistant could have major environmental and biodiversity benefits by reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Drought and heat tolerance could improve crop yields as our climate changes.

But there is also a challenge for scientists and biotechnologists. Genetically modified products that have been introduced to date (albeit in a GM variety) have led to increased yields and a reduction in the use of pesticides. But the impact of agriculture on deforestation and water use has continued to increase.

Industry needs to convince consumers that we all benefit, not just those doing marketing or growing new GM products.

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