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Sjur Sandgrind researches genetic technology at NIBIO. He believes that being able to use genetic technology like CRISPR could be of great benefit to society.

Researchers believe gene technology has enormous potential, but that the regulations are too strict

Researchers believe that gene-editing technologies have the potential to address challenges in agriculture, food security, and climate. But will they be permitted to use it? 

The research community believes that gene editing technology, such as the CRISPR gene scissors, can contribute to more sustainable food production. 

As regulations on genetic technology are now to be reassessed in both Norway and the EU, researchers are hoping for a more scientific and evidence-based approach to the law.

"With CRISPR, you can precisely turn off genes that make a plant susceptible to disease. You can also turn off genes that produce undesirable substances," explains NIBIO researcher Sjur Sandgrind.

Recently, 37 Nobel laureates and 1,500 researchers signed an open letter to the EU Parliament, where they requested less strict regularions for the use of genetic technology. 

The Norwegian professors and Nobel laureates May-Britt and Edvard Moser were among those who signed the petition. 

Under current Norwegian and European law, gene-edited products are classified as GMOs, a genetically modified organism. 

Such products must undergo a comprehensive and costly approval process, even though they are practically indistinguishable from conventional products.

Gene modification and gene editing

Gene modification and gene editing are methods where genetic technology is used to alter the genetic material of an organism, which can, for example, provide plants with resistance to pests and fungal diseases, increased shelf life, or higher nutritional content.

In gene modification, often referred to as traditional GMOs, a gene from another organism that codes for the desired trait is inserted at random locations in the genetic material.

In the most common form of gene editing, small and precise mutations are made that could occur naturally without the insertion of foreign DNA.

Gene editing can also be used to insert DNA from foreign organisms, but unlike gene modification, this can be done in a targeted manner.

The law has not been changed in 20 years

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy (NIBIO) also hope for a relaxation of the law to enable the use of CRISPR to address challenges in agriculture, food security, and climate.

They are already using CRISPR in projects involving the shelf life of apples and lettuce, removal of plant viruses, and the development of potato varieties that are less susceptible to blight. 

For the time being, positive findings cannot be utilised.

“An open hearing on the modernisation of Norwegian genetic technology, which has remained unchanged since 1993, closed in February,” says Sjur Sandgrind, a genetic technology researcher at NIBIO.

EU is also in the process of making changes. Sandgrind explains that the law became stricter in the EU in July 2018.

“Nearly six years ago, a law was passed in the EU equating gene editing with GMOs. As a result, it became more difficult to introduce CRISPR products into agriculture,” he says.

Under Norwegian and European law, gene-edited products are currently classified as GMOs, even though they are practically identical to conventional products.

Sandgrind has researched gene editing in plants at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He explains that the EU's decision to change the law came just a few weeks before he was due to start his doctoral thesis.

“In Norway, we've had the same law all along, but in Sweden, agricultural authorities allowed almost unrestricted use of CRISPR. Only standard applications for small-scale field trials were required. The change in the law forced me to alter the method of my PhD thesis,” he adds.

Faster and simpler

Sandgrind states that the general sentiment in the research community is that the legislation is outdated.

Currently, it can take 10-20 years to develop new varieties. With CRISPR, you can dramatically reduce the time it takes.

“There have been significant advancements in technology since 1993. Throughout Europe, there has been strict regulation against GMOs. The argument for the new tools, with CRISPR being the most well-known, is that they can be used without introducing foreign DNA," he says. 

He further adds that it is possible to achieve the same outcomes with CRISPR as with traditional breeding methods, only faster and more precisely. Many researchers believe it is not very practical to regulate such technology rigorously.

“CRISPR can, among other things, make plants more resistant to disease, remove toxic substances, and adapt them to meet climate change. There is a lot of research showing these applications,” the researcher says. 

Sandgrind emphasises that the potential benefits of CRISPR are signficant, enabling easier and quicker results. He points out that in the context of mandates for reduced pesticide use, a growing population, and climate change, CRISPR could aid in developing more sustainable plants. 

He believes it is wrong to regulate based on the method. Instead, the focus should be on assessing the risks of the results, not the methods. He is not aware of any inherent risks associated with the technology itself.

“Today, we can have two plants that are completely identical - one is prohibited, and one is allowed. It seems unwise. So far, the legislation hasn't considered technological advancements and the potential usefulness of the technology when used properly,” he adds.

More resistant to disease

One of the areas being heavily researched is improving disease resistance in plants.

Researchers at NIBIO aim to demonstrate that CRISPR can be used for something concrete that is beneficial for Norway and Norwegian consumers.

“With CRISPR, you can selectively turn off genes that make a plant susceptible to disease. You can also turn off genes that produce substances you don't want. For example - when pressing rapeseed, you're left with a cake that is very nutritious but concentrated with bitter substances. Instead of this mass being usable for animal feed or human food, it must be discarded or diluted. With CRISPR, rapeseed plants have been developed with fewer bitter substances, so they can be used as animal feed,” Sandgrind says.

He points out that modern agriculture is far from nature.

“What's important for a wild plant is to survive in nature. It's different from in food production. Wild plants produce toxins to protect themselves from insects and diseases. In food production, we want large seeds that are edible, easy to harvest, and don't have toxic substances. Wild plants have characteristics that are useful in the wild, but that we don't want in agriculture,” he says.

According to Sandgrind, all genes interact with other genes and the environment. If you turn off one process, there may be more of another product.

“That's why we need to investigate - we need research and testing. It's the same thing we do when we develop varieties. You don't always get the result you want right away. But that doesn't mean they're dangerous for that reason - plants don't produce new toxins or develop consciousness,” he says.

Researcher Tage Thorstensen and his team at NIBIO were the first in Norway to successfully use CRISPR technology to knock out susceptibility genes in wild strawberries. These are genes that make the plants more vulnerable to disease, especially fungal diseases.

Small changes, big effect

Today, it can take 10-20 years to develop new varieties. Plants are bathed in chemical solutions or exposed to radiation that causes thousands of mutations, which can then be planted.

“We've been doing this for a hundred years, and we eat the products every day. We haven't seen any health risks. This is widely accepted, but it's a cumbersome method. In principle, it's like shooting with a shotgun and hoping to hit. With CRISPR, you can dramatically reduce the time,” Sandgrind says.

He believes that if researchers are allowed to work with CRISPR, they will not need 10 years of projects and 50 people to develop new varieties. 

“It provides new opportunities for those of us funded by taxpayers. We have different incentives than the big agricultural actors, and we want to use genetic technology to develop new plant varieties that can benefit society,” he says. 

In 2024, NIBIO initiated a large project on potato late blight, utilising CRISPR in collaboration with other research institutions.

Saving the environment and economy

In January 2024, NIBIO launched a major project on potato late blight, using CRISPR in collaboration with Graminor, NMBU, and the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. The goal is to make Norwegian potato varieties more resistant to late blight.

Researchers believe gene editing has enormous potential.

Sandgrind points out that currently, farmers need to spray a lot of pesticides, which could affect health, the environment, and the economy. While completely eradicating the problem with CRISPR might not be possible, even a slight improvement could significantly impact yielsds and pesticide usage. 

“In Norway, we also have a unique climate and our own varieties. What is good for mountain villages in Gudbrandsdalen is not so interesting for those developing varieties in the Netherlands,” he says.

NIBIO is also working on improving resistance to scab in apples.

“Scab is the small black spots you see on apples. When apples get scab, they often get new diseases as well," he says.

Fruit growers therefore do not get the same price for their crop, or there is less yield.

“We're also looking at apple browning. Can we turn off the gene that causes apples to turn brown, so they can be stored better? People throw away a lot of fruit and vegetables because of browning. We have also started working on browning in lettuce and disease resistance in lettuce,” he says.

Sandgrind notes that historically, only large corporations have employed genetic technology for their commercial gains, often under the guise of contributing to a better world. Yet, their primary goal remains profit generation, leading to developments like pesticide-resistant crops among other controversial innovations.

“By developing apples with better shelf life and potatoes that require fewer pesticides, we're doing something people see the benefit of. We want to show that CRISPR can be used for something concrete that is useful for Norway and Norwegian consumers,” he says.

Important for developing countries

Sandgrind emphasises that the technology is actually much more crucial on a global level than for Norway.

“In Norway, we have a niche climate and don't produce terribly much plant-based food. We're also not the ones most severely affected by climate change and population growth. Here, we are used to finding everything we need in the store. Even though we see prices rising and complain about it, we are well off. There are few who go hungry," he says.

NIBIO employs CRISPR in efforts to enhance resistance against scab in apples, as well as addressing browning in apples.

Therefore, the direct benefits are even greater for countries in other parts of the world. 

"These countries are more vulnerable to climate change and are experiencing a drastic increase in the need for food production. They may also use more pesticides," he says.

In countries where it is 40 degrees Celsius and drought, adapting food production can be extremely important.

“Crop losses over several years in Africa and South Asia would be catastrophic. If climate change makes parts of the world nearly uninhabitable and we get 100 million people knocking on Europe's door because they can't produce food where they currently live, the situation becomes even more urgent," the researcher says. 

He further adds that genetic technology is now easier to use than before and can be applied to crops like millet and cassava, which are important in certain regions. These crops currently do not attract large investments. 

"Therefore, the use of genetic technology will be even more crucial for them. Many of these countries also have a more positive view of this technology,” he says.

Remove virus

Carl Jonas Jorge Spetz at NIBIO studies plant viruses. He has used CRISPR in a project to learn more about a devastating virus in wheat.

“CRISPR can be used to remove viruses, kill viruses in cells, and produce clean plant material. When a plant is infected with a virus, it's very difficult and sometimes impossible to get rid of it,” he says.

Spetz explains that they have created their own CRISPR vectors and inserted them into plant cells. The hope is that this will remove the virus. Theoretically, this is possible, but they are still at the experimental stage and do not yet know if they will succeed.

However, there are always challenges when seeking new solutions:

“The biggest challenge lies in the diversity of viruses. There are thousands of them. Today, we use several different methods to try to remove viruses from plants. Sometimes one of these methods works against one virus but not others. The beauty of CRISPR is that it offers a single method to accomplish this. However, it's not entirely straightforward; there are many variables involved that we need to consider and adjust,” Spetz says. 

Tool in the fight against climate change

Spetz also emphasises that CRISPR and genetic technology are versatile tools that can be used for various purposes beyond gene editing. This includes initiatives in green technology aimed at increasing carbon capture.

“The risk is minimal, and gene editing has enormous potential to address various challenges in agriculture and environmental conservation. Ultimately, gene editing, including CRISPR, offers innovative solutions to improve food security, sustainability, and human health,” he says.

It can be used to detect viruses within cells and to engineer plants with specific traits, such as increased sugar content, the researcher explains.

Genetic manipulation can produce resistant plants. However, he believes it is equally important to develop plants with various biosensors – for example, plants that can detect high emissions of carbon dioxide.

“Through genetic technology, we might be able to stop using plastics. We can stop using minerals. We can have plants that can detect human viruses. Imagine having an oregano plant. When you feel sick one day, you take a leaf and bite into it. If it changes colour, you're sick. There are countless things we could do if we were allowed,” says Spetz.

Carl Jonas Jorge Spetz notes that CRISPR and genetic technology can be used for various purposes.

However, he underlines that using CRISPR to remove viruses does not result in GMOs.

“But GMOs are legal in many of the countries we buy goods from, such as Argentina and the US, so we have most likely already eaten it. In medicine, GMOs are already widely used,” he says.

Insulin, for example, is a GMO.

“In general, we are afraid of GMO plants. I think people are worried that it will harm them if they eat it. Others believe in cross-pollination; they believe that if you plant a crop, a seed will cross with a native seed and kill everything,” Spetz says. 

He points out that this is not the case and that the problem is probably partly created through misunderstandings. According to the researcher, there is no documentation showing that GMO food is more dangerous than other food.

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