The research institute Rothamsted Research will carry out a series of field trials with wheat whose genome has been engineered. The institute has received permission from Defra, the UK Department of Agriculture. According to the institute, it will be the first field trial of CRISPR-Cas refined wheat in the UK and the EU.
The wheat in the trial has been altered to reduce the content of the naturally occurring amino acid asparagine. In the lab, the scientists switched off the gene responsible for the production of asparagine. The CRISPR-Cas wheat comes in the 5-year trial next to traditionally fortified wheat on asparagine. The aim is, among other things, to identify differences in yield and quality in practice.
Why lowering the asparagine content is good for consumers?
When baking and/or roasting bread, asparagine is converted into acrylamide.
“Acrylamide has been a serious problem for the food industry since its discovery in foods in 2002,” says Professor Nigel Halford in an explanation on the site of Rothamsted Research. “It causes cancer in rodents and it is suspected that it is also carcinogenic in humans”.
Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas make targeted changes to a plant’s genes. This change also occurs with traditional change. The big difference is that in gene editing the mutation is applied in a targeted manner, whereas in traditional breeding it is a coincidence. Unlike genetic modification, no genes are added or altered in a way that would be impossible in nature.
Prohibited in current legislation
Current European and English legislation makes all new breeding techniques equivalent to genetic modification, which is prohibited. There is a wide debate on whether this legislation is too rigid and prevents the development of new varieties.