Genome Editing FAQ

Read all about the most frequently asked questions regarding genome editing.

Note: You can read all about genome editing applications in healthcare biotech here

What is genome editing?
Genome editing is an advance in biological tools with the potential for a wide range of applications. Genome editing works much like editing text on a computer. First, a specific search is conducted within the organism’s genome (“text”) to locate the place were a specific change in the DNA sequence (“letters”) is desired. Then, the genome editing tool acts as a pair of biological ‘scissors’ to ‘mark’ that place by cutting DNA between the “letters”. Finally, the desired DNA sequence (“letter”) changes are accomplished with the help of a natural process which relies on the cell’s own repair mechanism that can delete “letters” or “edit” them (substitute one letters for another). These changes to an organism’s own “letters” (DNA) result in a specific characteristic. This could be e.g. the correction of a malfunctional gene.
Many applications of genome editing produce organisms that could otherwise be found in nature or developed with traditional tools. Such organisms are “non-transgenic” – they do not contain “foreign” DNA – DNA from a different species. A significant advantage of genome editing is that now those changes can be achieved much more efficiently and in a targeted manner.

What is CRISPR?
CRISPR (pronounced “crisper” or also referred to as CRISPR-Cas) is a recently developed efficient and versatile genome editing tool. The CRISPR-Cas system was originally discovered as a bacterial “immune system” that confers resistance to viruses. Within the natural system, specific sequences within viruses (CRISPR sequences) are recognized by the pair of bacterial biological ‘scissors’ (Cas enzyme) in order to protect bacteria from viral infection.
Other genome editing tools use other biological ‘scissors’, such as zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) and transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) but they all function using the same principles.

What characteristics can be achieved using genome editing?
The private and public sectors are using the tools of genome editing to develop a range of new products with new or improved properties. Products vary per sector and per its end users.
For healthy, sustainable food (production): Examples of characteristics developed by genome editing – which is often called “plant breeding innovation” or “new breeding techniques” (NBTs) in this sector – include disease resistant fruits and vegetables, products with lower allergenic potential (eggs, milk and wheat), healthier oils with reduced trans-fats, and cereal crops that use water more efficiently. Furthermore, genome editing allows for development of food with longer shelf life, enabling a reduction of food waste.
For a bio-based economy: Genome editing can enable the production of bio-based chemicals, for replacing petrochemical “building blocks”. Similarly, the technique may be used to develop pheromones that can be used as an alternative to insecticides for crop protection, thereby cutting down on pesticide use and bypassing their chemical production processes.

What is the regulatory status of genome edited products in the EU?
Since a European Court of Justice ruling on 25 July 2018, plants, animals, and micro-organisms resulting from genome editing are to be treated like genetically modified organisms (GMOs)1 and are governed by the GMO Directive (Directive 2001/18/EC). This approach is in contrast with the regulation of genome edited organisms in many other parts of the world, including North and South America, Australia, and Japan.

Will any genome edited products be available in the EU soon?
It is unlikely that we will be benefiting from genome edited products in the EU soon. In agriculture, it has proven virtually impossible to obtain EU authorisation to grow regulated GMO crops in Europe. Even an EU authorisation for GMO crop import, which are all harvested outside the EU, is very costly and lengthy. For the same reasons, many genome edited products for the bioeconomy are also unlikely to become available in the EU in a near future.

Are genome edited products available in other countries?
Wide commercialization of the first crops developed through genome editing is yet to come, while a growing number of countries (such as the USA, Argentina, and Brazil) are working on developing such crops. The genome edited soybeans which yield heart-healthy oil are already on the U.S market. In the near future, we might also get high fibrous wheat and waxy maize that can be used for developing adhesives

1 Court of Justice of the EU Ruling on Case C-528/16 and associated Press Release. EuropaBio Press Release.


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