Blast-resistant rice could be grown and marketed in Europe thanks to European Parliament support for New Genomic Techniques

Feb 9, 2024

The European Parliament has adopted a favorable position on the European Commission’s proposal on New Genomic Techniques (NGT), which alter an organism’s genetic material in very precise and controlled ways. The aim of this legislative proposal is to make the food system more sustainable and resilient by developing plant varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases, drought or other problems, give higher yields and require less fertilizer and pesticides. The European Parliament’s favorable vote opens the door to the commercialization in Europe of a BOMBA rice variety developed by Agrotecnio and the University of Lleida that is resistant to rice blast, a disease prevalent worldwide caused by the Magnaporthe oryzae fungus.

Rice blast is a global disease that causes large losses in production, also in Spain. To infect the plant, the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae identifies certain endogenous rice genes. The research led by Paul Christou, Teresa Capell and Jordi Voltas, in Agrotecnio and the University of Lleida, deactivates these genes so that the fungus is not able to identify and infect the plants.

The Agrotecnio Applied Plant Biotechnology research group led by Paul Christou and Teresa Capell is one of the first in the world to work on rice biotechnology and gene editing. Their first research activities started in the early 1990s and their first scientific paper on gene editing was published in 2016. In addition, the Forest Management research group led by Jordi Voltas has been working with rice seed companies in the Ebro Delta (eastern Spain) for more than 20 years. Two projects funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (SUSTAINRICE and BLAST-AWAY) were launched in 2022, and they have helped to develop this blast-resistant rice, thanks also to the involvement of a company in the sector.

Currently, all plants obtained through New Genetic Techniques (NGS) are subject to the same regulations as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), under the 2001 European directive. However, there are major differences. Compared to an original, unmodified organism, those produced by NGTs have very small changes in their genetic code which could also occur in nature or through conventional breeding. As some NGT varieties may have more extensive modifications, the European Parliament proposes to distinguish between plants equivalent to conventional plants (NGT 1) and plants that are modified to a larger extent (NGT 2), which will need to meet stricter regulatory requirements. The genetically edited rice developed in Lleida falls under the NGT1 category, because it is indistinguishable from an original variety that could have resulted from natural processes. The difference is that improving rice using traditional techniques could provide this result within 10 to 15 years in the best case, an achievement that gene editing guarantees in just one or two.

The news comes against a backdrop of protests from the agricultural sector Europe-wide. Among other issues, European farmers demand that the same requirements for products grown in the European Union are imposed on imported products as well. Paul Christou points out that “the new regulation is a game-changer in Europe. It has the potential to put Catalan and Spanish rice farmers and producers at the forefront of cutting-edge technology-driven production”. Currently, farmers can only use five fungicides to fight rice blast, a list that is expected to shrink in the coming years because the most widely used product is subject to a moratorium that suggests it will be banned soon.

Christou, Capell and Voltas address the question about the safety of these products for human food by explaining that “the resulting plants only differ from the original by a few nucleic acids in their DNA sequence, precisely in the deactivated gene which was targeted by the genome editing process. This translates into an infinitesimally small number of DNA changes, much smaller than any natural mutation that occurs daily in nature and about which there are no regulations or concerns”.

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