Genetically modified products remain a controversial issue here at home and in other countries across the globe. These concerns and mass media hype have stifled progress on many fronts especially in agriculture. However, some significant developments within technology and regulations are starting to pave the way for a lot of exciting things ahead, including new wheat varieties.
Starting with regulations, the USDA updated its biotechnology rules last Spring, which exempts many GE plants from oversight. Developers can self-determine whether they qualify for exemption based on the new regulations, known as “Sustainable, Ecological, Consistent, Uniform, Responsible, Efficient,” or SECURE. David Baltensperger, Ph.D., head of Texas A&M’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, said the new regulations give scientists a significant advantage in commercializing genetic sequencing advances at a lower cost.
One of the most significant exemptions is for plants with certain modifications that could otherwise have been achieved through conventional breeding. That brings us to the advances in gene editing technology, including CRISPR, RNA technologies, and even artificial intelligence. Basically, these technologies allow researchers to snip a stretch of DNA or RNA and then either disable the affected sequence or replace it with a new one. The end product is something that could have been created through breeding but using technology to edit the genomes speeds the process exponentially. It’s also much more precise. Largely thanks to the new rules, the USDA approved at least 70 gene-edited plants last year, compared to only 7 in 2019.
The possible applications of these editing tools are endless and there are already some on the market. The Arctic Apple, for instance, was created using RNA interference (RNAi) technology. Ag giants like Corteva Agriscience and J.R. Simplot, as well as smaller firms and start-ups including Inari Agriculture, Pairwise, and CoverCress all have traits in development. A number of universities also plan to release new traits. Bitoech firm Cibus is moving forward with 14 gene-edited crops including canola with a seedpod-shatter reduction trait. Cibus’s traits also include eight that boost canola’s resistance to fungal diseases, an herbicide-tolerance trait, and a trait to increase oleic acid content.
I’m really excited to see what happens with wheat, which has never been able to enjoy the advantages of genetic modification technologies like soybeans and corn. Until last year, no GM wheat variety had ever been approved largely due to concerns about consumer acceptance. But last October, Argentina become the first country to approve the growth and consumption of genetically modified wheat. The drought-resistant HB4 wheat variety was developed by Argentine biotechnology company Bioceres along with the National University and CONICET.
Scientists have also developed a new variety that is resistant to rust, a virulent fungal disease that can destroy a whole wheat crop in just weeks. USDA researchers were part of the team that worked on the project, which targeted wheat stem rust. The same technology is now being used to create varieties that are resistant to wheat stripe and leaf rust diseases that also attack wheat crops. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) just announced a $5 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) to develop climate-resilient wheat. I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Sources: CEN, Genetic Literacy Project, AgDaily, USDA)