Agri Business

Kochi firm develops technology to use genome editing in crops with genetic modification

V Sajeev Kumar | Subramani Ra Mancombu Kochi/Chennai | Updated on March 24, 2021

Changes tomato colour into yellow using Nobel Prize winners’ method

A group of scientists at AgriGenome Labs in Kerala’s Kochi city has used the popular genome editing technology - CRISPR Cas9 - to change the colour of tomato to yellow and improve its traits.

The breakthrough is important as it demonstrates that genome editing can be used in the country’s agricultural crops to improve traits without using the genetically modified organisms (GMO) technology.

This opens the door for crop improvement through minimal intervention technology. Most laboratories use colour change as the first trait in order to visually demonstrate to even the non-experts that the technology works, according to AgriGenome Labs.

The changes made through such genome editing are minimal and non-distinguishable that can help in fast incorporation of designed mutations.

Such mutations could occur naturally, but it may take several years.

Ram Kaundinya, Secretary-General of Federation of Seed Industry of India, said that genome editing is a very good technology that can help tackle diseases in plants, increase the nutritional aspect and improve their shelf-life.

AgriGenome Labs said research on genome editing is being done on bananas to improve the lycopene content, while C D Mayee, South Asia Biotechnology Centre President and renowned cotton scientist, said that genome editing is being tested to make bananas vitamin rich.

AgriGenome Labs’ yellow tomato contains a higher level of pro-lycopene, the precursor to antioxidant lycopene, that has more health benefits than the red one.

The CRISPR Cas9 technology, developed by Nobel prize winners in chemistry Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, is a technique in molecular biology through which genomes of living organisms can be modified. Ca9 is a bacterial enzyme.

The Kochi team of scientists achieved the breakthrough by editing the gene that codes for CRTISO, an enzyme responsible for making the red pigment lycopene (all trans-lycopene). The scientists have also shown that the CRISTO gene expression can be altered by editing the regulatory regions upstream of the gene.

The research led by George Thomas, Chief Operating Officer, AgriGenome Labs, and Boney Kuriakose was done in collaboration with SciGenom Research Foundation and SciGenom Labs.

According to the AgriGenome team, the major take-away from this breakthrough is that the colour of tomato can be changed by editing a single base in the DNA sequence of the tomato.

To enquiries from BusinessLine, the team, quoting scientific literature, said yellow tomatoes are less acidic and taste sweeter. Some yellow varieties can be so low in acidity that they taste bland. This also depends on the variety and other fruit characteristics.

However, the change in colour may not give any additional help to withstand pests and viral attacks. The change may also not result in a rise in yield.

Mayee said that genome editing can prevent abiotic stress in crops such as apples turning brown over a period of time.

Kaundini and Mayee said the Indian industry is awaiting the Centre’s decision on treating genome editing.

“Till now, there is no regulation and the European Union feels regulation is not required,” Mayee said.

The Union government called for a meet recently on this aspect and an approach is being formulated.

Kaundini said that the Centre issued a draft paper on regulatory guidelines classifying genome editing into three groups a year ago. These are based on site directed nuclease (SDN) or Oligo Directed Mutagenesis.

The three grounds are SDN-1, SDN-2 and SDN-3 with SDN-1 being one where no difference can be found in the outward appearance and SDN-2 being one in which some outward appearance is visible.

The industry is now awaiting changes to the draft guidelines based on the suggestions made and the Centre finalising its policy to approve genome editing.

Published on March 24, 2021

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