Ana Margarida Fortes, group leader of the Fruit Functional Genomics & Biotechnology Lab at Ciências ULisboa, gave an interview to the Journal of the Portuguese Association of Horticulture and talked about new genomic techniques (NGTs), their applications and the legislation behind it, as well as the way we may have to face plant species management for food purposes in the near future. 

In general, these techniques lead to alterations in the genome of plants that could, in many cases, occur in nature but would take more time“, summarizes Ana Margarida Fortes when asked to explain what are NGTs. In particular, the researcher and her team work with CRISPR-Cas9, which is an essential and commonly established and used tool in genetic editing. To understand this tool, just think of the enzyme Cas9 as “molecular scissor” used to cut and modify specific sections of the plant’s DNA, which are soon repaired by mechanisms the cells possesses. Several actions can be performed in the genome of the plant with this technique: one can either edit some genes or introduce others that come from the same plant or a close relative. According to Ana Margarida Fortes, the main advantages are that: “This genome editing technique is faster, targeted, and offers greater control since it functions as a molecular scissors, allowing the alteration and correction of target genes with high precision. Moreover, in the final product, it is not possible to distinguish the mutation made in the laboratory from a mutation that could have occurred in nature.”

In Ana Margarida’s lab, CRISPR-Cas 9 has only been applied to tomato cultivation and the results are promising: “Thanks to NGTs, we have already managed to extend the shelf life of tomatoes by 3 days”. Moreover, the scientist points out the potential of the technique as it can potentially be applied to other species’ cultivation, such as maize, rice, wheat and fruit-bearing species. In other words, to all species that may be affected by climate transition, namely to water scarcity and a bigger susceptibility to pests.

Although their advantages and the fact that a recommendation that lead the foundations of the European Commission’s (EC) proposal concerning the regulation of New Genomic Techniques (NTGs) usage has been made (know more here), the legislative process for these new technologies at the European level remains still very slow. Regarding this Ana Margarida Fortes suspects that: “In the European Union, the population is not adequately informed, does not know how these plants are produced, and continues to be afraid when there is no scientific reason for it“. Moreover, the scientist fears that: “The companies themselves will not be investing until they are certain that the legislation is assured and that this area has a solid foundation, as these technologies naturally involve high costs“.

 Ana Margarida Fortes