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Innovations to facilitate a greener world

The Second Global Bioeconomy Summit, held in Berlin in April 2018, confirmed the essential role of modern genetic engineering methods such as genome editing in producing heat- and drought-tolerant crops adapted to the changing climate. Such methods are clearly required to help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Despite the restrictive decision taken by the European Court of Justice in July 2018, the German Ministry of Education and Research will continue promoting the further development of genome-editing technologies for use in crop breeding.

Sustainable Development Goals logo of the UN. © www.un.org

The first Global Bioeconomy Summit (GBS) was held in Berlin in November 2015 following the United Nations’ adoption in September 2015 of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for application in all United Nations member states, the G7 agreement on global decarbonisation and alleviation of hunger for 500 million people as well as the signing of the Paris Agreement limiting the global temperature rise to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. GBS organisers and participants agreed that these ambitious goals could only be achieved with a sustainable bioeconomy involving interaction and cooperation between the big nations. The second GBS, held in Berlin in April 2018, was principally a stock take of recent developments: environmental experts from more than 30 nations reported on progress and setbacks as well as discussing trends and technologies related to the sustainable (“green”) transformation of our world.

Anja Karliczek, German Federal Minister of Research and Education © BMBF

Senior German politicians used the summit as a forum to show whether planned actions by their departments are paving the way to reaching the global goals set out in the 2030 Agenda. In her government declaration on the German sustainability strategy on 24th September 2015, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted the “universal validity” of the SDGs. Minister Anja Karliczek stated that the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is prioritising the second goal (SDG2) aimed at ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition for a world population that will have reached 9.5 billion by 2050. She also made it clear that she sees research, development and innovations as the areas where Germany can make a major contribution to achieving this goal. Within the framework of Germany’s National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030, the BMBF will promote the further development of innovative technologies such as genome editing involving CRISPR-Cas9 with the aim of breeding crops that not only give higher yields, but can respond to a changing climate through heat tolerance and pathogen resistance and the ability to grow on dry or salty soils. This will contribute to the sustainable transformation of agriculture.

Optimisation of crops using genetic engineering

Dried-out maize on a field. © Pixabay

As the journal “Nature Biotechnology” has just reported, genome editing has been successfully used to create a new crop. A team of German, Brazilian and American researchers – using BMBF funding amongst others – have been able to create a tomato line with the flavour and valuable nutrients of wild tomato species and agronomically desirable traits in as little as three years (in contrast, it can take years to breed new plants using traditional methods).

Greater tolerance to drought is one of the primary goals of plant breeding. Of all staple food crops used to feed the world’s population, around 50 percent of harvest losses caused by environmental factors are down to drought, and it is expected that this proportion will continue to rise as a result of global warming. The maize and potato harvest losses that occurred due to drought in Germany in 2018 should be taken as a warning.

In vitro cultivation of Arabidopsis seedlings. © Alena Kravchenko 2016, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Markus Wirtz and Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Hell from the Centre for Organismal Studies at the University of Heidelberg, in cooperation with Dr. Carsten Sticht from the Medical Research Centre in Mannheim and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Norway and France, have investigated an effective cellular mechanism that helps Arabidopsis thaliana (thale gress) plants survive in times of drought. In order to prevent water loss by transpiration in situations of drought, the phytohormone abscisic acid induces the closing of the stomata in the plant’s leaves and the prolongation of the plant’s primary roots. These effects are enhanced when N-terminal acetylation (i.e. the attachment of an acetyl residue at the free amino group at the N terminal of proteins) catalysed by the enzyme NatA, which is among the most common protein modifications in eukaryotes, decreases after drought stress. Therefore, in transgenic plants where NatA is downregulated, abscisic acid improves the plant’s ability to grow under dry conditions. The mechanism identified in Arabidopsis could be of major importance for creating plants that are tolerant to drought using genome editing. However, applied research experiments and field trials will probably be carried out in countries outside Europe given the critical and hostile attitude to green genetic engineering in Europe.

Ideological and legal limits when implementing the shift to a green economy

At the GBS, there was general agreement on the potential benefits of the new genetic engineering technologies and genome editing in particular when it comes to driving forward the green transformation of the world. It came as a huge shock to the European research community when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on 25th July 2018 that new genetic engineering methods such as genome editing and organisms generated using these methods fall under the Genetic Engineering Directive and have to go through complex approval procedures before being placed on the market. Life scientists, who tend to take a rational approach, find the arguments of the ECJ difficult to understand – why should old methods involving mutagenic chemicals or radioactive irradiation for generating mutations at random be allowed, just because they have been used for a long time and are deemed safe, while organisms created with the CRISPR-Cas9 method are subject to strict regulation? CRISPR-Cas9 induces single specific point mutations that are totally indistinguishable from naturally occurring genetic variation, even at the same locus. How can control be exercised? The answer is not that clear. However, it seems that the ideological judgement of the ECJ will make the general public distrust genetic engineering in plant breeding to an even greater extent.

Jochen Taupitz, a legal medicine specialist from Mannheim, has a clever argument in response to scientists who are skeptical about green genetic engineering research in Europe: when the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences’ Fourth Genetic Engineering Report was presented on 29th October 2018, Taupitz posed the rhetorical question as to whether the ECJ deliberately decided to “drive the whole, basically inconclusive Genetic Engineering Directive to the wall”. Taupitz believes that the Genetic Engineering Directive will not be adhered to, nor that it will be possible to control compliance with the directive. The Fourth Genetic Engineering Report concludes that Germany is one of the leading countries in the world in plant research under laboratory conditions. The report also states that it is necessary to support the BMBF’s initiative to promote the further development of existing genome editing technologies in order to stay internationally competitive and calls on interested parties “to prevent the impending decoupling of German research from the international green genetic engineering research programmes at the level of applied research.”

Glossary

  • Biotechnology is the study of all processes involving life cells or enzymes for the transformation and production of certain substances.
  • A gene is a hereditary unit which has effects on the traits and thus on the phenotype of an organism. Part on the DNA which contains genetic information for the synthesis of a protein or functional RNA (e.g. tRNA).
  • Mutagenesis means the production of mutations caused by, for example, UV light or other kind of radiation or numerous chemicals.
  • There are two definitions for the term organism: a) Any biological unit which is capable of reproduction and which is autonomous, i.e. that is able to exist without foreign help (microorganisms, fungi, plants, animals including humans). b) Definition from the Gentechnikgesetz (German Genetic Engineering Law): “Any biological unit which is capable of reproducing or transferring genetic material.“ This definition also includes viruses and viroids. In consequence, any genetic engineering work involving these kinds of particles is regulated by the Genetic Engineering Law.
  • Pathogenity is the ability to cause a disease. One differentiates between human, animal, and plant pathogens which specifically cause a disease in either humans, animals or plants.
  • Transformation is the natural ability of some species of bacteria to take up free DNA from their surroundings through their cell wall. In genetic engineering, transformation denotes a process which is often used to introduce recombinant plasmids in E. coli, for example. This is a modified version of natural transformation.
  • Transgenic organisms are organisms (microorganisms, animals, plants), into which foreign material has been introduced using genetic engineering methods and which is inherited from one generation to the other. Transgenic organisms are thus genetically-modified organisms.
  • Arabidopsis thaliana is the scientific name for the thale cress. This plant was the first one whose genome was completely sequenced in 2000. Because of its very small genome with only 5 pairs of chromosomes (with about 25,000 genes) it is used extensively in experimental studies.
  • Federal Ministry of Education and Research

References:

Global Bioeconomy Summit 2018 Conference Report. Innovation in the Global Bioeconomy for Sustainable and Inclusive Transformation of Wellbeing: gbs2018.com/resources/gbs2018-documentation/

Zsögön A, Čermák T, Naves ER, Notini MM, Edel KH, Weinl S, Freschi L, Vovtas DF, Kudla J, Pereira Peres LE: De novo domestication of wild tomato using genome editing. Nature Biotechnology 2018. DOI: 10.1038/nbt.4272

Linster E, Stephan I, Bienvenut WV, Maple-Grødem J, Myklebust LM, Huber M, Reichelt M, Sticht C, Møller SG, Meinnel T, Arnesen T, Giglione C, Hell R, Wirtz M: Downregulation of N-terminal acetylation triggers ABA-mediated drought responses in Arabidopsis. Nature Communications 2015. DOI:10.1038/ncomms8640

Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities: Interdisciplinary Gene Technology Report Working Group (editor): Vierter Gentechnologiebericht. Bilanzierung einer Hochtechnologie. 2018. Nomos Verlag, Baden-Baden

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