GMOs: the plant genome, between law and technology

“Legally yes, technically it is more complicated. » This is how the researchers’ answer to the question of whether plants modified by Crispr-Cas9 fall within the scope of GMOs, genetically modified organisms, is summed up.

No foreign gene insertion

From a strict point of view of vocabulary, editing the genome of plants by cutting it does indeed constitute genetic modification. But in the current sense, “usual” GMOs are obtained by inserting foreign DNA, often of bacterial origin, explains Carine Giovannangeli, from the “Structure and instability of genomes” laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History. In the case of Crispr-Cas9, “We directly modify the genes of the plant, we do not insert foreign genes”supports Fabien Nogué, specialist in genome engineering at the Fabien Nogué National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

→ EXPLANATION. GMOs: Crispr-Cas9, the revolution on our plates

Statistically, any modification induced by Crispr-Cas9 has emerged or may emerge in the plant, simply because of the mutations that occur naturally and permanently in living things. Consequence: this manipulation leaves no trace of its origin. “It is impossible to differentiate genetic manipulation by Crispr from genetic manipulation that would appear naturally or after a long process of crosses and selections”, confirms Carine Giovannangeli. What pose problems of traceability and dissemination in the face of other species, criticize some.

A possible evolution of the European regulation

In Europe, the plants thus manipulated depend on the regulations on GMOs. The reference European directive dates back to 2001. It does not prohibit GMOs, neither for cultivation nor for marketing, but strictly regulates their uses. Since 2015, Member States have also had the possibility of refusing the cultivation of GMOs on their territory, even if it were authorized at European level. In France, no GMO is currently in cultivation and the last request for field experimentation dates back more than ten years, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

However, the lines are moving at European level. A European Commission report published in April 2021 concluded that “the legislation is not adapted to certain new gene editing techniques”. A public consultation on this issue took place last October, and should be followed by an impact study in the second quarter of 2022, before a possible regulatory change.

“Talking about mutagenesis and transgenesis is scary, yet the science has completely evolved since the regulations more than twenty years ago”, defends Claude Tabel, at the head of the French Union of seed companies. While acknowledging “the need to experiment before moving on to a production phase”. For their part, environmental associations have been protesting for several months against a possible easing of the regulations towards what they call “the new GMOs” and believe that the risks of side effects of genome editing should not be overlooked.


Plant handling

There are four main techniques :

– the crossbreeding and selection process (authorized in the EU);

– mutagenesis (exposure to radiation or chemicals, for example to slow the germination of potatoes; permitted in the EU);

– “classic” GMOs (strictly supervised in the EU, no cultivation in France);

– new genome editing techniques, of the Crispr-Cas9 type (same regulations as GMOs in the EU).

There are several genome editing techniques : Talen, zinc finger nucleases (ZFN), and various Crispr. All do the same thing but do not have the same level of complexity.


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