On April 12, 2019 VIB has been granted a permit for its field trial with maize plants that contain small surgical CRISPR-induced heritable changes. Obtaining this permit allows VIB to continue the field work that was already initiated in 2017.

A European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling of July 2018 triggered a decision by the Belgian authorities that such a CRISPR experiment requires a permit. Before the ruling, this was not the case. The ECJ decided that small heritable changes (so-called mutations) induced through CRISPR are not exempt from the GMO legislation, even though the same mutations elicited via ionizing radiation or chemicals do not need to follow these rules. Nevertheless, there is scientific consensus that CRISPR allows one to produce desired modifications in crops in a much more efficient and surgically accurate manner. The CRISPR technique can help with the development of crops that can contribute to important sustainability goals such as reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, making plants more robust against climate stress, improving the nutritional content of food crops, and protecting biodiversity. In many cases, this involves the introduction of small heritable variations – mutations – that could arise spontaneously in nature or via traditional breeding methods. In these instances, CRISPR-modified crops are indistinguishable from their traditional counterparts.

VIB is happy to have been granted the permission but regrets that the CRISPR mutants from a legal point of view are treated differently than indiscernible traditional mutants for which a permit is not required. Dirk Inzé, scientific director of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology: “There is worldwide consensus that CRISPR-modified crops are at least as safe as traditionally generated mutants.”

In the maize plants of the field trial mutations are induced in genes involved in the repair of DNA damage. The researchers hope that this will make DNA damage in these plants caused by environmental stress (heat, UV radiation, drought…) accumulate more easily. Through this alteration, the plants can be used as a biosensor to signal the consequences of environmental stress at the level of DNA. The scientific field trial focuses on basic research into the consequences of the increasingly difficult growing circumstances plants are exposed to due to climate change. These plants are not meant to be further developed and will never enter the market or food chain.

VIB will collaborate with ILVO for practical aspects of the CRISPR maize field trial.