Gene editing offers the promise of improved plant traits. It allows plant breeders to manage genetic traits, when combined with biotech traits, in new ways more quickly.
“Our EPA plus DHA trait is a GM [genetically modified] trait, but what we’ve realized is that you can sort of supercharge it to make it even better if you stack it with a gene-edited trait as well,” explains Johnathan Napier of Rothamsted Research in England.
The EPA plus DHA trait produces specific omega-3s — key fatty acids for human health — in camelina plants. In late 2020, Rothamsted and Napier started working with Yield10 Bioscience, an agricultural bioscience company, that has found it can boost oil and seed production in camelina through CRISPR gene editing. But Napier also discovered layering in that GM trait could boost omega-3 production, too.
“So you can put the two things together, and the sum of the two can be greater than their individual parts,” Napier says. “You know Yield10 has quite a lot of their own proprietary gene-edited traits in camelina.”
Napier jokes that he’s kind of an old-school biotech guy. “It makes me sound so ancient,” he jokes. “But I mean there are things you can do with GM that you can’t do with gene editing, and making EPA and DHA in our camelina is one of those things. It can only be a GM trait.”
EPA is eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA is docosahexaenoic acid. Both are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and some algae. Producing this higher-quality omega-3 in plants, like camelina, could be a significant benefit to consumers and is easier on the fish population.
But if you can make it better, or make the plant produce more, by mating the old-school GM with modern gene editing, it shows how biotechnology continues to advance.
The challenge the global plant breeding world faces is moving all this technology forward. Europe has stated that gene editing will be regulated the same as biotechnology. This slows down approvals, and makes exports or imports of gene-edited products more difficult.
For Napier, who is using GM, regulatory approvals are more complicated already. Layer in gene editing and he admits there’s more of a challenge.
Yet he’s also seeing some positive moves with the United Kingdom, which is no longer part of the European Union. “The government has made a first step in changing the regulation on gene editing and how we regulate gene-edited field trials,” Napier says. “That’s not going to immediately impact GM, but there is an expectation that the government wants to liberalize the way we run all our genetic technologies.”
One reason Rothamsted started working with Yield10 was access to the U.S. market. “They’re natural collaborative partners for us because they’re based in the U.S. and they’re interested in camelina,” Napier says.
Yield10 understands the regulatory framework required to enter the United States, or to grow GM crops. This collaboration will offer the opportunity for a new source of omega-3 that’s not from fish yet has the same composition.
Napier says while it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact benefit of the GM combined with gene editing tech, production of EPA and DHA could rise as much as 25%. “That’s the beauty of the two different approaches. You can use gene editing on top of the GM to tweak and boost the product in a way that is significant,” he says.
Napier adds that this technology — even the GM — is still in the early stages of development, offering a promise for new products to come. Learn more about this work and other new tech in development at yield10bio.com.