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Plant Genome Editing – Policies and Governance

Policy and Practice Reviews ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Bioeng. Biotechnol. | doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2019.00031

An EU perspective on biosafety considerations for plants developed by genome editing and other new genetic modification techniques (nGMs)

 Michael Eckerstorfer1*, Andreas Heissenberger1, Wolfram Reichenbecher2,  Ricarda A. Steinbrecher3 and Friedrich Waßmann2
  • 1Department Landuse & Biosafety, Umweltbundesamt GmbH, Austria
  • 2Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN), Germany
  • 3EcoNexus, United Kingdom

The question whether new genetic modification techniques (nGM) in plant development might result in non-negligible negative effects for the environment and/or health is significant for the discussion concerning their regulation. However, current knowledge to address this issue is limited for most nGMs, particularly for recently developed nGMs, like genome editing, and their newly emerging variations, e.g. base editing. This leads to uncertainties regarding the risk/safety-status of plants which are developed with a broad range of different nGMs, especially genome editing, and other nGMs such as cisgenesis, transgrafting, haploid induction or reverse breeding.
A literature survey was conducted to identify plants developed by nGMs which are relevant for future agricultural use. Such nGM plants were analysed for hazards associated either (i) with their developed traits and their use or (ii) with unintended changes resulting from the nGMs or other methods applied during breeding.
Several traits are likely to become particularly relevant in the future for nGM plants, namely herbicide resistance (HR), resistance to different plant pathogens as well as modified composition, morphology, fitness (e.g. increased resistance to cold/frost, drought, or salinity) or modified reproductive characteristics. Some traits such as resistance to certain herbicides are already known from existing GM crops and their previous assessments identified issues of concern and/or risks, such as the development of herbicide resistant weeds. Other traits in nGM plants are novel; meaning they are not present in agricultural plants currently cultivated with a history of safe use, and their underlying physiological mechanisms are not yet sufficiently elucidated. Characteristics of some genome editing applications, e.g. the small extent of genomic sequence change and their higher targeting efficiency, i.e. precision, cannot be considered an indication of safety per se, especially in relation to novel traits created by such modifications. All nGMs considered here can result in unintended changes of different types and frequencies. However, the rapid development of nGM plants can compromise the detection and elimination of unintended effects. Thus a case-specific premarket risk assessment should be conducted for nGM plants, including an appropriate molecular characterization to identify unintended changes and/or confirm the absence of unwanted transgenic sequences.

Keywords: new genetic modification techniques, NGM, Genome editing, CRiSPR/Cas, biosafety, Risk Assessment, Plant modification

Received: 28 Aug 2018; Accepted: 05 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Armin Spök, Graz University of Technology, Austria

Reviewed by:

Didier Breyer, Sciensano (Belgium), Belgium
Muthukumar Bagavathiannan, Texas A&M University, United States  

Copyright: © 2019 Eckerstorfer, Heissenberger, Reichenbecher, Steinbrecher and Waßmann. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Michael Eckerstorfer, Umweltbundesamt GmbH, Department Landuse & Biosafety, Vienna, Austria, michael.eckerstorfer@umweltbundesamt.at