Gene Editing Could Create Medicines and Self-Fertilising Crops. but Are We Facing Another GM Food-Style Furore?

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The technique could transform life for farmers and Parkinson’s sufferers. But critics insist it remains unproven – and the EU may end up blocking it

Robin McKie Science Editor
Saturday 6 February 2016 19.04 EST

Outside Norwich, in a refrigerated cupboard in the basement of the John Innes Centre, racks of glass tubes filled with bright green shoots have been arranged in neat, carefully labelled layers. They look like salad pots at a fast-food outlet.

These young barley plants are special, however, and not for sale. They have been grown from seeds whose DNA has been subtly altered by a technique known as gene editing and they hold dramatic promise, scientists at the crop research centre believe. Their makeup is being tweaked in an attempt to create a strain of barley that would make its own ammonium fertiliser from nitrogen in the soil: this would be a major boost for farmers who lack rich soil or money to buy artificial fertilisers.

The art and science of gene – or genome – editing is making waves. Last week it generated headlines when researchers were given the go-ahead to use the technique to alter human embryos in a project aimed at better understanding the causes of miscarriages. Now it is set to have an equally revolutionary impact on agriculture – though for gene-edited crops, the science faces a serious obstacle. In a few weeks, European commission regulators are set to publish a report that will decide whether gene-edited crops should be considered to be genetically modified organisms.

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