A Scientist’s Perspective on the Gene-editing Debate

Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, a senior research scientist and consultant at the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology, highlights the need for a scientifically-based public dialogue on GMO regulations, in response to a revised EU directive on gene technology.

The European Parliament and Council revision of directive 2001/18/EC is a significant development in the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within the European Union. The new draft indicates that gene-edited plants should be subjected to the same assessment as conventionally bred plants, thus shifting the focus from the method of generation to the characteristics of the final product.

In light of this, Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, a scientist at the GMI, offers insights for unbiased, scientific exploration of green genetic engineering. She presents an analysis on what the directive might mean for plant research and how it could promote a more science-based approach to evaluating genetically modified crops.

Could you explain the key elements of the original directive, "Directive 2001/18/EC"?

The original directive was based on the uncertainty in the beginning when the transgene technology came up, because that allows the introduction of genes that have not been in the genome previously, thereby conferring new traits. The directive, which is over 20 years old, aimed to establish unified treatment of genetically modified plants throughout the EU, focusing on their safety for consumers and the environment. In 2018, there was a procedure at the European Court of Justice dealing with what should be treated as a GMO plant. And the court decided that everything would be GMO - even plants that had been treated by classical mutagenesis, using chemicals or radiation exposure to introduce mutations. And so, they insisted that strict guidelines should be applied to every plant that would be seen as genetically modified regardless of the method of production, including CRISPR-Cas technology.

How do regulations concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the use of genetic editing tools like CRISPR impact the scientific community and their research?

In the daily work of scientific research, scientists tend to be somewhat shielded from the effects of regulations that primarily concern the introduction of genetically edited plants into the environment. Scientists already have the capacity to use powerful tools such as CRISPR within their laboratory settings. As long as they work with modified plants in controlled environments and avoid introducing them into the natural ecosystem, their work remains unimpeded by current laws. 

However, the influence of these regulations can indirectly affect research. For example, one of my colleagues had a grant proposal, together with other European countries. The project included working with a CRISPR-modified organism in the sense of the Court of Justice judgment. However, Austria - one of the participating nations - declined to fund their share of the project since it would have violated local laws. Despite the fact that the research would have been conducted outside of Austria, the grant was lost.

These restrictions can influence where scientists choose to work. There's a temptation to relocate their work to countries with more relaxed laws. This situation leads to the potential loss of expertise in nations with more restrictive rules, posing long-term consequences on their scientific innovation landscape and economies.

Recent advancements in gene editing techniques have not been addressed in the original European genetic engineering directive. Could you elaborate on the importance of this update and its anticipated impact on the regulatory landscape?

Recent gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas, enable the editing of existing genes within an organism's genome. This represents a significant advancement that distinguishes gene editing from gene addition.

The revised directive will shift the safety regulations for plants, moving away from the method by which they are generated and instead focusing on the individual product. Why should we treat the product differently whether it is made conventionally or by gene technology? The reevaluation of the regulatory framework should result in a more science-based assessment of these plants. In the context of gene technology, the modification of genes to introduce desirable traits often involves altering specific regions of DNA. The suggestion is that plants in which existing genes have been modified for no more than a maximum 20 nucleotides should be treated the same way like those coming from conventional mutagenesis and classical breeding. That's the main baseline. 

However, we need to correct the inappropriate risk assessment associated with gene technology. When comparing the risks linked to mutations introduced through conventional breeding and those introduced through CRISPR technology, one can argue that the latter poses a lower risk. CRISPR technology offers a reduced likelihood of unintended mutations compared to conventional breeding methods, which introduce numerous mutations, some of which may be undesirable. With CRISPR technology, targeted genes can be precisely modified with minimal unintended alterations.

What potential do new techniques in gene technology hold for future developments, especially in light of the ongoing climate crisis and the need for more sustainable agriculture?

I want to emphasize that gene technology is not a tool against the climate crisis. The primary role of gene technology is to equip plants with traits that enhance their ability to cope with the consequences of the climate crisis. Green gene technology should be seen as a complementary tool rather than a standalone solution. By enhancing plant resilience against biotic and abiotic stresses - challenges that can negatively impact the health, growth, and productivity of plants - gene technology can reduce losses in productivity caused by plant diseases and pathogens. Additionally, ongoing research focuses on identifying genes associated with water management, nutrient uptake, and growth patterns. This contributes to improving food security by minimizing crop losses and increasing agricultural productivity. Therefore, I see it as an indispensable tool to solve some issues that are the consequence of the climate crisis, but the climate crisis needs to be solved by other methods. 

How has the media's reporting on gene technology changed in recent years?

I have seen a positive shift in the media's reporting of gene technology. Reputable news sources are now more likely to present positive opinion and science-based perspectives on these subjects. This change is evident not only in the content of news stories but also in the comments sections where individuals are increasingly demonstrating open-mindedness and acknowledging the reasonableness of genetic technology. This shift in the media’s coverage and the evolving public discourse reflects a collective effort from scientists and journalists who have contributed to disseminating accurate information and promoting a more balanced understanding of gene technology. 

What can scientists do?

We need more people who have the talent to break things down to a level which is accessible to non-experts. Scientists are trained to go into detail and to be correct and precise. And that is a big barrier for science communication. But then, remember Albert Einstein's famous citation, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Scientific information should be made readily understandable to the public, without oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. Finding this delicate balance between simplicity and truth is a crucial and worthy goal.