Genetics is the key to the future. This discipline, which has experienced a spectacular boom in recent decades, is already allows true ‘miracles’. Animals and plants resistant to diseases, rejuvenation of human epithelial cells, cloning of living beings, transgenic foods… The latest examples pigs resistant to porcine productive and respiratory syndrome (viral disease) and plants that produce omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients help prevent heart disease and cancer. But geneticists face a problem: laws and regulations almost everywhere in the world that prohibit genetic modification.
The UK Government is now ready to change its rules of the game: it is preparing a gene technology bill that promises unleash the bioscience industry of some of the corsets that now imprison them, in tune with the demands of scientists.
The announcement has been received with contained satisfaction by the majority of biologists. They ensure that genetics will allow, for example, to develop crops resistant to blight (parasitic fungus of multiple plants that causes large losses) and “feed the planet”. But the scientists themselves admit that the day when science can “save the world” is still far away.
“This bill will allow us to take a few baby steps,” said Professor Nick Talbot of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a Norfolk-based plant research institute. “This is good news, of course, but we will still need a lot more public debate on these issues before we can really make any progress,” he told The Guardian.
British scientists have already come up with novel products, such as blight-resistant potatoes and crops rich in omega-3 nutrientsbut they are still unlikely to win approval under the new regulatory framework proposed by the Boris Johnson government and could continue to stall, as they have for years.
Gene editing, novel technique
Novel gene editing techniques have also made it possible to achieve animals more resistant to diseases. And not just in the UK. In the United States, the alteration of a single gene allowed a group of researchers to produce a litter of piglets immune to a deadly virus in almost 100% of cases, a coronavirus, specifically. Genetically modified pigs do not get infected.
The gene editing it is a recent technique, two of whose creators, the French Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American Jennifer Doudna, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years ago for their work. This technology makes it possible to alter the composition of a gene without adding new DNA, which allows you to create crop strains with new characteristicssuch as resistance to drought, or certain diseases without adding foreign genetic material.
There is another genetic technology, the genetic modificationwhich usually involves in most cases taking a complete gene from one plant and inserting it into another, so that the recipient acquires a certain characteristic of the original, such as protection against some disease.
The transgenic cropsdeveloped about thirty years ago received a strong rejection for the claim, unfounded according to scientists, that the resulting foods, “Frankenfoods” made from transgenic plants, were ‘unnatural’ and a danger to health and the environment.
Everything indicates that the UK Government will ‘green light’ (with certain restrictions, surely) gene editing, but will not ‘release’ genetic modification. The normative norm will not therefore allow to delve into findings such as that of Jonathan Jones, and his team who also work at the Sainsbury Laboratory, who have achieved a blight resistant potato variety. Because they got it through genetic modification.
Potato variety immune to blight
the potato they call PiperPluscreated in the laboratory, is identical to the so-called Maris Pipar, the most cultivated in the United Kingdom, except for one detail: it is blight resistantwreaking havoc on British agriculture.
“Farmers have to spray their fields 15 times a year to protect their potatoes, and their tractors put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and compact the soil in the fields, and the chemicals they spray can get into the water supply,” he said. jones.
The researchers hope that Boris Johnson’s Executive will go a step further and allow genetic modification, a much more powerful method than gene editing. They propose that crop varieties be regulated by their properties, and not by the method used to create them. Because there are things that only genetic modification can achieve.
“Regulation of gene technologies should be based on the outcome of any genetic change rather than the current focus on the technology used to make a genetic change,” warned Professor Dame Linda Partridge, Vice President of the Royal Society.
Scientists advance some achievements achieved thanks to genetic modification. For example, plants that produce omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that help prevent heart disease and stroke, and may also play protective roles against cancer and other conditions. The world’s main source of omega-3 is fish, and marketing plants rich in the fatty acid would help prevent future critical shortages due to declining fish populations.
The need to feed the world
But gene editing has also brought spectacular advances. At the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Using this technology, a group of scientists has succeeded in creating a breed of pig resistant to porcine respiratory and productive syndrome, a serious fatal disease for the species.. The next step will be to use gene editing to make specimens resistant to the african swine fever.
Experts have stressed the need for new research on plants and animals and to ensure that new products reach fields and farms “as soon as possible”. Above all because by 2050 the world population is likely to reach 10 billion and disease- and drought-resistant crop strains and animal breeds will be needed to feed the world.
Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Center in Norfolk, stressed the “huge impact” that agriculture has on the environment. “It produces many more carbon emissions than the aviation industry, for example. Furthermore, fertilizers are made from fossil fuels and, along with pesticides, can also have a major detrimental effect on the local ecology. Only science can save us from these kinds of problems”, he concluded.
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