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July 30, 2019

Scientists call on EU: Give CRISPR a chance!

Common Open Statement asks to amend outdated GMO legislation

Around 120 scientific organizations from all over Europe, including the IST Austria, called out to EU politicians to amend almost 20-year-old GMO legislation in order to secure food supply and support sustainable agriculture.

Through a public statement addressed at the newly elected EU Parliament and EU Commission, renowned European scientists appealed to the EU to simplify the use of new precision breeding methods to improve crops. This should enable the sustainable development of agriculture and food production in the face of climate change and population growth. In Austria, IST Austria supported the public statement alongside the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences (BOKU), the Gregor Mendel Institute for Molecular Plant Biology (GMI) and the CeMM Research Centre for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW).

New method allows for accurate and effective genome editing

The appeal comes exactly one year after a controversial ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), stating that plants produced with precision methods such as CRISPR/Cas9 should also be classified as genetically modified organisms (GMO). Thus, plants that contain even the smallest CRISPR-mediated alteration, which can also arise spontaneously in nature, fall under the GMO legislation of 2001 and are subject to a complex and expensive approval procedure that only large multinational companies can afford. Researchers fear that investment in EU research will decline and breeding efforts by smaller companies will be prevented. At the same time, plants produced with far less precise conventional methods of gene modification—for example by chemicals or radiation—are exempt from regulation.

At the same time, plants produced with far less precise conventional methods of gene modification—for example by chemicals or radiation—are exempt from regulation. These methods produce hundreds to thousands of random mutations in plant genomes and have long been used in breeding. However, they subsequently require time-consuming and costly selection and backcrossing in order to remove the hundreds of unwanted mutations.

“The new methods, such as CRISPR/Cas9, allow precision breeding in which the same positive genomic changes can be achieved without the accompanying genomic damage,” said Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, group leader at the GMI.

What is CRISPR/Cas9?

CRISPR/Cas9 is a new molecular biological method that allows to precisely cut and alter DNA of various organisms, including plants. The basic mechanism behind CRISPR/Cas9 is the same as in every randomly occurring natural mutation. In contrast to traditional and rather ineffective mutation breeding, where DNA breaks are induced by radiation or chemicals, molecular genome editing provides a highly accurate and fast way of cutting DNA at an exact point that needs to be changed— for instance, to breed crop that is more resistant to heat, drought, or certain pathogens.

Adaptation of outdated GMO legislation needed

The world population is growing, and many plant species are threatened by longer periods of drought due to climate change. The signatories, therefore, joined forces and urgently called for an adaptation of the outdated GMO legislation and harmonization with other countries in order to facilitate plant breeding by research institutes and smaller producers in the EU.


Press release by GMI/ÖAW from Thursday, July 25, 2019

More information by the Wellcome Genome Campus
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)


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