CRISPR-Cas-mediated gene editing has become a powerful technology capable of precisely modifying the genome of a wide variety of organisms.
The technology is based on an existing bacterial immune system and is adopted worldwide as a simple, precise and effective method to genetically improve living organisms, including animal and plant species for agriculture, food and nutrition. .
Genome editing technology makes it possible to modify plants’ own genes and does not depend on the insertion of foreign genes, unlike genetic engineering, to modify a particular trait. It has already been used to create crops with improved characteristics. For example, the generation of genome-modified rice with broad spectrum resistance to fire blight by modulating the function of the sucrose transporter gene; high-yielding rice by multiplex edition of three genes linked to yield; and genomic rice with high drought tolerance in combination with high yield ability by mutating abscisic acid receptors.
Likewise, the tomato has become resistant to powdery mildew disease through changes resulting in loss of function in the Mlo uncomfortable. The recent approvals of genome-modified fungi, soybeans, and petunia by the United States Department of Agriculture, and the nutritionally enhanced tomato edited by CRISPR by the Japanese government are significant examples of translational progress in this area that would encourage other countries, including India, to use CRISPR for various innovations in plant breeding.
The availability and adoption of these efficient genome engineering tools for precise editing would greatly assist Indian agriculture in developing crop varieties for climate resilience and nutritional security. While the Green Revolution has resulted in self-sufficiency in food production which has enabled the Indian government to pass the Right to Food Act-2013 to feed millions of people, but now is the time to s ” tackle larger issues such as crop adaptation to climate, depletion of natural resources, increased efficiency of input use and nutritional security of our nation.
With regard to crop adaptation, emphasis should be placed on combining stress tolerance in the field with characteristics related to yield improvement, such as improved photosynthesis, improved the acquisition of nutrients and the efficient use of natural resources in order to have more products with less inputs. Some of these examples of crop traits that need to be introduced into elite genotypes in India for climate adaptation using genome editing technology include cereal, oilseed and seed editing. millet to withstand extreme weather conditions, use water and nutrients more efficiently; non-leguminous crops to fix atmospheric nitrogen to reduce reliance on chemical nitrogen application; modify rice so that it grows with minimal water input and, therefore, reduce methane emissions and simultaneously grow crops with improved use of solar radiation or photosynthetic efficiency.
It is important to note that deregulation and global harmonization of the regulatory framework is essential for the timely commercialization of genome-modified crops for the benefit of smallholder farmers and consumers. Notably, genome-modified crops remain indistinguishable from conventionally selected variants and have been treated as non-GMOs by the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other countries. Once the CRISPR genes are separated from the modified plants by backcrossing, they are identical to the natural genotypes of the crops.
Regulatory impunity for these edited crops is an absolute necessity to realize the full potential of this technology. If the plants produced by gene editing are similar to their unedited counterparts, it makes sense that they are not heavily regulated and are treated as plants of conventional breeding, as has been done by several countries in around the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and Argentina.
From a seed industry perspective, if the Indian government also makes the same decision, it will pave the way for many small businesses to improve crops through gene editing.
These companies will be willing to invest in research and development, even if they cannot afford to invest in regulatory studies for GM events or the uncertainty of the approval process. It is very important that India also takes its decisions aligned with the major agricultural producing countries. It will have a significant impact on the seed trade. The Indian government has repeatedly wanted India to hold at least 10% of the world market for seed production. If we are aligned with the world opinion on gene editing, it will open more opportunities for India to be part of the world seed production centers and create important employment opportunities.
On the other hand, if genetically modified crops are heavily regulated in India, small businesses will miss out on this important scientific breakthrough and only the larger companies, which can afford the cost of complex regulations and can bear the uncertainty. regulatory authorities may be able to use this new technology in their breeding program. India could also miss out on seed production opportunities as seed companies will only choose countries that do not regulate gene editing for their seed production.
Therefore, the fate of crop improvement through gene editing in India is highly dependent on the decision of our regulatory agencies.
Professor KC Bansal, Former Director, ICAR- National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi and Dr Shivendra Bajaj, Executive Director, Seed Industry Federation of India, New Delhi