We may have to use gene technology more to enable us to feed a growing world population and avoid depleting the soil. This episode of the Forskningsfortællinger podcast (in Danish) examines how CRISPR gene-editing technology can be used to transform wild plants into sustainable crops. We also examine the scepticism surrounding genetically engineered food that characterizes the public debate, especially in Europe.
More food needs to be produced as global population increases. We also need to grow crops in a way that relieves the current pressure on our environment, climate and biodiversity.Finding a solution to this apparent dilemma requires critically examining the crops we cultivate. Part of the solution may include several as yet uncultivated wild plants that can function as crops.
Professor Michael Broberg Palmgren from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and several colleagues have begun to investigate whether we can breed some of the many wild plants found in nature and eventually use them for food. To investigate the breeding potential of the wild plants that may become part of our future food production, Michael Broberg Palmgren and his colleagues uses CRISPR gene-editing technology, also known as molecular scissors.
Traditional breeding occurs through mutagenesis, in which seeds are exposed to radiation or chemicals that can alter their genes. When used for plant breeding, CRISPR is sometimes referred to as precision mutagenesis because it produces the same result as traditional mutagenesis: altering the genetics of the plant without adding anything new.
Unlike traditional mutagenesis, which introduces many random mutations, CRISPR can target specific genes in a plant without using chemicals or radiation. Michael Broberg Palmgren wants to use this precision to accelerate and refine the breeding of several selected plants that can potentially replace our current crops.
“We seek crops that are resilient to climate change and that can be suitable for sustainable agriculture. The goal is agriculture without depleting the soil, adding less fertilizer, using less pesticide and using less water. Quite simply, agriculture with more robust plants,” explains Michael Broberg Palmgren, who leads the NovoCrops project described in this ScienceNews article.
Genetic modification should be in tune with green thinking
Despite the potential that CRISPR offers, it cannot simply be used to develop new crops on a larger scale. The main reason is the European Union legislation that equates CRISPR with genetic modification through transgenic modification, which is used to add external genes to a plant’s genome, known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Andreas Christiansen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen is investigating how the general population perceives new biotechnological methods, and according to him, there is increasing recognition at the political level that CRISPR-enabled genetic editing can be used more safely than thought in the 1990s when the legislation was first adopted.
He therefore expects some future pressure to re-evaluate the very restrictive legislation in this area.
“Genetically modified foods have been stuffed into a box labelled unsustainable or non-green. I think there is much to gain if politicians rethink this issue and and try to view a little more soberly how genetically modified foods fit into the whole green concept,” says Andreas Christiansen.
Guests in the podcast
- Michael Broberg Palmgren, Professor, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen
- Andreas Christiansen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen