UK scientists have used gene-editing technology to create a souped-up tomato containing as much vitamin D as two eggs or a serving of tuna.
The development comes in the same week the government will propose a change in the law that will make it easier to develop and sell gene-edited crops.
Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich created the tomato by switching off one of its genes.
Tomatoes naturally produce lots of the chemical pre-cursor of vitamin D but the plants normally use this to make other biochemicals they need.
By deleting the gene that carries out this chemistry in the plant, the researchers boosted levels of the vitamin D precursor. Ordinary sunlight falling on the leaves and the fruit then turns the chemical into Vitamin D3.
“Forty percent of Europeans have vitamin D insufficiency and so do one billion people worldwide,” said Professor Cathie Martin, who led the research published today in the journal Nature Plants.
“Tomatoes could be developed as a plant-based sustainable source of vitamin D3,” she said.
Gene editing (GE) is fundamentally different to traditional genetic modification or GM technologies. Most GM products contain a synthetic gene, or a gene from another organism inserted into the plant or animal of interest.
Insect-resistant cotton and soybeans for example, which are widely grown around the world, contain a gene originally found in bacteria.
Gene editing, by contrast, changes the characteristics of an animal or plant by deleting, swapping or repeating genes already present in the organism’s genetic code.
Currently, UK legislation – copied over from European law – does not distinguish between GM and GE and makes it virtually impossible to bring genetically modified products to market.
On Wednesday they government is introducing the Genetic Technologies (precision breeding) Bill which aims to massively curb regulations around gene editing. The aim is to reduce time it would take to bring a gene edited product to market from years to months.
Fundamental to the change in law is the distinction between GM and GE. It argues that changes brought about by gene editing could, in theory, be introduced by conventional breeding techniques.
Developers will have to prove that their product could have been created “naturally”. Existing restrictions on GM technologies will remain as they are.
The changes will initially apply just to plants and will only be extended to genetically edited animals once potential animal welfare issues have been addressed.
Many environmental groups still oppose gene editing, arguing that because it involves an initial step of inserting foreign DNA into the plant to do the editing (it’s then removed again) it is in no way “natural”.
The change in the law opens the door to more and more invasive steps, says Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM.
She said: “It’s entirely misleading that gene editing doesn’t involve the insertion of foreign genes.
“In fact gene editing is a suite of technologies that range from a simple snip to the complex insertion of foreign genes. And the traits that get scientists really excited, things like disease resistance and drought resistance, simply cannot be achieved without these complex technological interventions.”
It is a looming challenge for environmentalists. Conventional farming has a major negative impact on the environment. In theory, gene editing could help address those issues.
Engineering crops to resist disease or pests could have major benefits to the environment and biodiversity through the reduction of use of fertilisers and pesticides. Drought and heat tolerance could improve yields of crops as our climate changes.
But there is a challenge for the scientists and biotechnologists too. Genetically engineered products introduced so far (admittedly of the GM variety) have increased yields and led to reductions in the amount of pesticides used. But the impact of agriculture on deforestation and water use has continued to increase.
The industry will have to persuade consumers the benefits extend to all of us, not just those marketing, or growing new genetically edited products.