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Scientists back plans to progress gene editing regulations

Researchers support UK Government moves to reconsider regulation step-by-step, starting with plants, with intent to consider use in animals later, after a national consultation.

African Crops

Roslin Institute scientists have welcomed moves by the UK Government to review regulations around gene editing that could help farmers grow more resistant, nutritious, and productive crops.

The plans, following a nationwide consultation on gene editing, could allow the UK to revise rules on the use of gene-editing technologies that can enable changes in an organism’s DNA, making breeding more precise and efficient.

The UK is able to develop its own regulations of gene editing in the wake of its departure from the European Union.

Gene editing does not involve the introduction of DNA from other species. Its use could bring about genetic changes similar to those that could be produced more slowly through natural breeding processes.

Under current rules, gene editing is regulated in the same way as genetically modified organisms, in which additional DNA, sometimes from another species, may be introduced into an organism. This is currently controlled by EU GMO regulations.

Enabling research

As a first step, the Government's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) will seek to change the rules relating to gene editing to cut red tape for crop trials and make research and development easier. 

The focus will be on plants produced by genetic technologies, where genetic changes could have occurred naturally or could have been a result of traditional breeding methods.

Further steps will be to review the regulatory definitions of a genetically modified organism, to exclude organisms produced by gene editing and other genetic technologies where these could have been developed by traditional breeding.

GMO regulations would continue to apply where gene editing introduces DNA from other species into an organism.

Gene editing offers major opportunities to address the combined challenges of rapidly increasing global demand for healthy and nutritious food with the goal of net zero carbon emissions.

I welcome today’s announcement as a first step towards reducing unnecessary and unscientific regulatory barriers to the use of advanced breeding techniques which are precise and targeted, allowing us to make specific genetic changes.

Adopting a more proportionate and enabling approach to regulation will open up increased opportunities for international research collaboration, inward investment and technology-based exports, bringing a major boost for UK science.

Although we welcome the developments announced by Defra we are disappointed that currently the proposals do not include development of regulations relating to applying genome editing in farmed animals in parallel to crops. There are major opportunities to improve animal health and welfare that are in development, that use gene editing technologies.

Professor Helen SangHead of Division of Functional Genetics and Development, the Roslin Institute

I am a strong advocate for the technology, a confidence that comes from seeing projects emerge which benefit animal, farmer and consumer alike – such as those which reduce the burden of disease in animals. I view Defra’s intention to incentivise innovation as pointing the way to capture the benefits of this technology, supporting UK innovation in both future plant and animal agriculture.

Professor Bruce WhitelawProfessor of Animal Biotechnology, the Roslin Institute

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

Related links

Response to UK’s consultation on gene editing

Gene editing identifies disease resistance gene in salmon

Agreement targets disease-resistant gene-edited pigs