SLU news

The genetic scissors - not a magic wand but competitive tools in plant breeding

Published: 12 April 2024
Seven potato tubers.

If the genetic scissors Crispr/Cas9 get green light in the EU, more researchers and plant breeders will be able to develop so-called gene edited varieties of crops, which in various ways could contribute to a more sustainable and competitive food production in Europe - faster and with higher precision.

In February this year, the EU Parliament approved a legislative proposal to ease the regulations on new genomic techniques (including the genetic scissors Crispr/Cas9). Generally, it's the same proposal that the European Commission presented in July 2023. To come into effect, the proposal has to get the approval from the EU Council as well. Member states need to agree before a final negotiation can take place between the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council.

Within the program SLU Grogrund, we were early adopters of the genetic scissors. We utilize them to explore desirable traits in potatoes (such as improved drought tolerance and reduced levels of toxic glycoalkaloids), rapeseed (with enhanced protein quality), wheat (with lower cadmium accumulation), and sugar beet (with resistance to nematodes).

SLU Grogrund serves as a hub for plant breeding where academia, the agricultural industry, and society collaborate for a sustainable and climate-friendly food production.

Farmers need the right preconditions to meet society's expectations

The Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF) is part of the SLU Grogrund collaboration. They consider new genomic techniques, including gene editing, to be promising tools. Plant breeding - to alter a plant's traits, such as increasing yield or resistance to diseases - has been practiced throughout history. The significant difference with gene editing is that changes can be made faster and more precisely than before.

– Modern plant breeding technology is an essential part of future agriculture. We need resilient crops that give higher yields with less inputs and that can withstand extreme weather in a changing climate. Europe's farmers are now one step closer to benefiting from years of research findings in Sweden and other EU member countries, says Hans Ramel, board member of the Federation of Swedish Farmers and chairman of the SLU Grogrund steering group.

He believes that Europe's farmers are ready to meet society's expectations of an increased, sustainable food production, but they also need the right preconditions to meet the requirements.

– We are therefore hopeful that the decision-makers in the EU will promptly adopt the proposed legislation to secure the Union's future food production, says Hans Ramel.

Modern plant breeding makes agriculture more profitable and sustainable

The company Lantmännen participates in 17 out of SLU Grogrund's more than 20 projects, three of which currently utilize Crispr/Cas9. Desirée Börjesdotter is the plant breeding director at Lantmännen Lantbruk. She emphasizes that there are already significant demands on agriculture today, and it will become even tougher in the future – agriculture needs to become climate-neutral, have minimal negative impact on the environment, and at the same time produce high quality food and raw materials.

– With plant breeding, we can develop varieties with new and improved traits. The varieties need to produce more while also being, for example, healthier and more efficient in nutrient uptake, so that the inputs can be reduced, she says.

With the modern genetic scissors technology combined with methods like speed breeding and genomic selection that Lantmännen already employs, they create additional preconditions for a more profitable and sustainable agriculture that, with robust varieties, meets the increased demand for sustainably produced food.

– It is important already today, but it will become even more crucial as our planet is populated by more people, says Desirée Börjesdotter.

Proteins from potatoes – a unique breakthrough with genetic scissors as a tool

Potato tubers contain high-quality proteins that become a by-product in starch extraction. Unfortunately, toxic glycoalkaloids from potatoes end up in the same fraction as the proteins during this process, making it difficult to use the by-product as food. This is where SLU Grogrund comes into play. The program, which is a collaborative effort, has enabled the development of unique potato clones that are virtually glycoalkaloid-free.

– This is groundbreaking research that, combined with industrial interests, contributes to increased food safety and new food products for the benefit of consumers, says program director Eva Johansson.

Folke Sitbon is a plant biologist and coordinates SLU Grogrund's research on glycoalkaloids in starch potatoes.

– With the help of gene scissors, we can remove the trait of producing toxic substances. This allows us to utilize future varieties of starch potatoes as food in a new way. Using the by-product as a protein source would reduce our dependence on animal protein and imported soy, he explains.

If the legislation passes, low-glycoalkaloid potatoes will be allowed to be grown and used in the EU. If the proposal does not pass, there are still food producers outside the EU who are interested. This type of starch potato can be developed from various potato varieties suitable for cultivation in different parts of the world.

– We will see how the legislation turns out. It would be exciting to see the results of our research enter the European market, and disappointing if the EU falls behind, says Folke Sitbon.

Sometimes genetic scissors are referred to as a kind of magic wand. But it's not possible to change any traits with it. Moreover, genetic scissors are better suited for the plant breeding of certain crops. It is far from going to replace all conventional plant breeding.

Mariette Andersson and colleagues in Alnarp are pioneers in developing protocols for the use of genetic scissors in potatoes. As a researcher within SLU Grogrund, she is involved in several projects.

– For potatoes specifically, gene scissors are a convenient tool, as the crop has a complex genome, is propagated with tubers, and takes relatively long time to breed by crossing, she says.

In addition to being used for commercial purposes, genetic scissors are also an extremely useful tool in basic research.

– We have made significant strides in understanding the entire glycoalkaloid biosynthesis by knocking out gene by gene. It has been impossible to conduct this type of study efficiently before, says Mariette Andersson.

Lyckeby is involved in developing the technology

The company Lyckeby began their development work within modern plant breeding technology using the genetic scissors, Crispr/Cas9, in 2013. The aim was to create a starch potato containing only short-chain amylopectin starch. The new starch has properties that enable it to be used in applications that traditional starch cannot handle without first being modified with chemicals.

Together with Mariette Andersson and Per Hofvander, researchers at the Swedish University of Agriculture, SLU, a preliminary study on the technology was started, where it was concluded that a desirable mutation can be created in the starch potato. The success made them further invest and after two years they had the first potato prototype ready. The process of moving from laboratory to commercial cultivation was initiated with the goal of launching new products.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a longer and more complicated journey than expected. Since 2018, they have had to consider the new starch potato as a GM crop, which has made the project more difficult. Despite that, they chose to invest with continued hope that it will be fully possible to use the technology within the EU.

For Mathias Samuelsson, Sales Director at Lyckeby, who has been part of this project for many years, it is therefore gratifying that the EU Commission's proposal has been approved by the EU Parliament.

– A modern legislation for plant breeding that enables the safe use of Crispr/Cas9 is very welcome. Now agriculture within the EU will be able to reach the climate goals and for our part it means strengthened competitiveness and that we can reach our sustainability goals, he says.

Today, Lyckeby contributes with its knowledge and experience regarding genetic scissors, from a food producer perspective, in SLU Grogrund.


With genetic scissors, targeted mutations (precise changes) are made in genomes.

At the molecular level, there is no difference between mutations that occur naturally, randomly induced, or with the help of genetic scissors.

Genetic scissors allow the plant breeder to control where mutations occur in the genetic material, and thus which traits it will affect. (In plants with random mutations, the breeder must search for the desired mutations and avoid undesired ones - a costly and time-consuming process.)