CRISPR/Cas gene editing technology could provide a breakthrough in the fight against potato light blight disease, which causes global crop losses worth €3-10 billion a year.
In his PhD study, WUR researcher Daniel Moñino-López used the technology to make potato plants resistant to late blight disease caused by Phytophthora infestans, without inserting foreign DNA in the potato genome.
He used the CRISPR/Cas technology to modify non-functional resistance genes from potato varieties that are susceptible to late blight into gene variants that are found in wild potato species, which are resistant to Phytophthora infestans. Such edited plants allow a drastic reduction of pesticides to control the late blight disease.
Conventional breeding to introduce resistance genes from wild relatives of potato into new potato varieties that have sufficient quality for cultivation and use takes decades, while the disease quickly adapts. According to WUR, CRISPR/Cas technology has the potential to change the food and agricultural industries by making the breeding of new, improved varieties faster and more precise. Moreover, this technology has the potential to be employed for a wide range of traits, including resistances to other diseases and pests, nutritional contents, and flavour.
Following the European Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system by reducing by 50% the use of chemical pesticides by 2030, alternative strategies are crucial to control major crop diseases in agriculture. In his PhD thesis, Moñino-López advises the European Commission to regulate gene editing on a product basis, using scientific biosafety evidence of the new variety, rather than process-based regulations which are inherently ambiguous.
The regulation of gene edited crops in Europe is currently under debate and the European Commission has concluded that the current legislation is not fit for purpose for targeted mutagenesis and that it needs to be adapted to scientific and technological progress. The Commission will propose a new regulation in 2023, for discussion by the member states.