Could frankenfish be on the menu soon? UK considering allowing wider use of gene editing technology

As the UK government sets out plans to overhaul “outdated” EU laws copied over after Brexit – one of the potential areas for divergence is in the approach taken to gene editing. 

Since September, the UK government has been reviewing thousands of EU-era regulations to determine which of these it wants to keep in place, and which it wants to strike from the statute book.

The UK copied over the laws to smooth its exit from the EU on 31 January 2020, and kept them during a transition period that ended in January 2021. This week, the government announced plans to further remove many of these EU era regulations.

But what advantages could the UK seek to gain by doing this?

According to Joël Reland, a former Policy Advisor at the UK’s Foreign Office, and now researcher at UK in a Changing Europe, more liberal rules around gene editing could be one of the so-called Brexit bonuses.

Speakling to SalmonBusiness, Reland said, “Gene editing technology has the potential to create more nutritious, varied and blight-resistant crops.”

But fears of so called ‘frankenfish’ are wide of the mark says Reland, “EU rules regulate gene editing as a form of genetic modification. Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) review questions this assumption (gene editing does not involve transplanting genetic material from one species to another) and suggests gene editing technology could potentially be permitted in a wider range of areas.”

An example of the UK’s lead in this cutting edge technology can be seen in a paper published last year by researchers from the Roslin Institute and Hendrix Genetics, together with the University of Stirling.

The study, one of the first to apply gene editing to disease resistance in farmed fish, highlights potential applications of the technology by using it improve resistance to infectious pancreatic necrosis virus (IPNV) in salmon and related species such as rainbow trout.

The researchers used gene-editing technology to remove the Nae1 gene from salmon cells and, in separate experiments, used chemical methods to prevent the Nae1 enzyme formed by the gene from functioning in salmon cells. In both cases, limiting the function of Nae1 in cells that were exposed to the virus led to a significant drop in replication of the virus in those cells.

Typical mortality levels in an IPN outbreak are around 25 per cent, and severe outbreaks are known to kill as many as 90 per cent of farmed fish. No vaccine is effective in very young fish. Solving this problem could potentially save farmers tens of millions of pounds each year.

According to recent reports, a move to liberalise rules around gene editing would be supported by many scientists who regard EU regulation as misguided and stifling innovation in food technologies, and argue the change could also have benefits in a range of areas from public health to sustainability.

One pitfall of divergence, however, is the difficulty of selling the product back into the EU, which is currently conducting its own, similar review. Should the parallel processes end in different places British producers may be unable to sell gene-edited goods into the EU market (which could include Northern Ireland).

Would we be able to sell genetically modified food products into the EU?

Reland answers, “Not if the EU kept its present standards. There is also a risk that the EU relaxes its gene editing regulations (it is currently considering such a move) but in a way different to the UK – meaning both permit the process but English gene-edited goods don’t meet EU standards and can’t be sold on the market.”

But as Reland says, gene edited salmon may not be on the menu anytime soon, “This is also a devolved policy area, so gene editing reforms would apply in England and possibly Wales, but not Scotland or Northern Ireland (where most salmon in the UK originates). This could leave Scottish and Northern Irish farmers feeling that they are at a competitive disadvantage.”