Why 'an -omics' approach is needed'

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Researchers advocate new regulations for modern breeding techniques.

A RECENTLY-published Policy Forum article published this week in an online scientific journal calls for a new approach to regulating genetically-engineered (GE) crops, arguing that current approaches for triggering safety testing vary dramatically among countries and generally lack scientific merit – particularly as advances in crop breeding have blurred the lines between conventional breeding and genetic engineering.

The paper was written by a group of American experts and Wageningen University & Research's Professor Ken Giller.

It points out that, when dealing with varieties made using the CRISPR system, the European Union regulates all varieties while other governments base decisions on the size of the genetic change and the source of inserted genetic material. Meanwhile, in 2020 the US Department of Agriculture established a rule that exempts from regulation conventionally bred crop varieties and GE crop varieties that could have been developed by methods other than genetic engineering. One of the co-authors of the paper is Ken Giller, professor in Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University & Research.

Rather than focusing on the methods and processes behind the creation of a GE crop to determine if testing is needed, the paper states that a more effective framework would examine the specific new characteristics of the crop itself by using so-called “–omics” approaches. In the same way that biomedical sciences can use genomic approaches to scan human genomes for problematic mutations, genomics can be used to scan new crop varieties for unexpected DNA changes.

Additional -omics methods such as transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics test for other changes to the molecular composition of the plants. These measurements of thousands of molecular traits can be used like a fingerprint to determine whether the product from a new variety is “substantially equivalent” to products already being produced by existing varieties– whether, for example, a new peach variety has molecular characteristics that are already found in one or more existing, commercial peach varieties.

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If the new product has either no differences or understood differences with no expected health or environmental effects when compared with products of existing varieties, no safety testing would be recommended. If, however, the product has new characteristics that have the potential for health or environmental effects, or if the product has differences that cannot be interpreted, safety testing would be recommended.

Sources: Wageningen University & Research / Science

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