DJ de Koning, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Kat - This month I’m reporting back from the Genetics Society Spring meeting - Breeding for bacon, biofuels and beer - which was held up at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh last month. Over two days we heard fascinating talks from a range of researchers working on ways to make the plants and animals that we eat more efficient, healthy and sustainable, in order to deal with the challenge of feeding an ever-growing global population in a changing climate. I caught up with one of the organisers, DJ de Koning from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, to find out more about the idea behind the meeting.
DJ - So, there's been a lot of developments in both plant and animal breeding regarding the use of genomic and genetic technologies over the last 5, 10 years that is both the use of really huge molecular marker sets, and so, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of DNA markers or even whole genome sequences, but also the technologies in gene editing - so modifying these on a much larger scale than previously thought possible. People discussed a lot in meetings within their own species or within crops or within livestock. It is very rarely that we have a meeting where these experts come together and we can talk across species and have some sort of cross-fertilisation.
Kat - Appropriate term! Tell me about some of the talks that we’ve heard so far.
DJ - Jack Dekkers gave a really good introduction to the area from a livestock perspective. This is what we call genomic selection where we use tens of thousands of markers to do our selection of best animals for the next generation yesterday. We finished off today with an amazing talk by our Mendel lecturer, John Doebley. He gave a beautiful introduction also first of all of the history of domestication of maize from teosinte and combined top notch science with improving agricultural production. That is also one of the big challenges we have now is, with the population keeps to grow, we need to feed them and all of this is combining to that.
Kat - The talks we heard yesterday, that was all about the changes that have been brought about through conventional breeding - selecting animals or plants that have interesting characteristics and breeding them. It was amazing to see how much change, just from conventional breeding, that people have managed to bring about in species that we know and love and eat. But then this morning, we had talks that are taking it to the next level. Tell me about that.
DJ - Yes. This morning, there were several talks about genetic modification, how we can change individual genes or bring in genes and this has been happening in plants and livestock for decades already. But with the new technologies like CRISPR and TALEN, this can be done in a much more efficient way. Especially for livestock, these techniques have been discussed for a long time, like GM chickens and GM pigs. But to do it at a scale that you could actually consider having this as commercial production was always deemed unfeasible because of the inefficiencies. One other highlight is the talk from Sweden from Li-Hua Zhu where she introduced how we use traditional selection and genome editing to domesticate an entirely new crop which I find, personally, highly exciting.
Kat - Painting a picture of what the future might be like, bringing together conventional breeding, bringing together gene technology, gene sequencing, genome editing, can you almost imagine what some of the foods that we eat, how those species might change, say, in the next 50 years? What would be your vision of the future of how some of these technologies come together?
DJ - That is a really good question. Of course, first of all, we have to develop the technology and then we have to implement it and get it accepted. So, the key question for how the future will look is whether gene editing is treated differently by the regulatory framework and the consumer perception as gene modification, because with gene editing we do a very precise change and we don’t bring in genes from a completely different species as was done in the past. So, how it could look, I think the systems could become more specialised, but a lot of that specialisation will happen at the breeding company level. So, what I would hope is that at the farm level and the retail level, we can offer a more uniform, responsibly grown product that people can enjoy eating. And so, we know that we need to produce more food with less input and all of these technologies have their role to play in that.
Kat - You mentioned some of the public attitudes to things like genetic modification and gene editing. Do you think that is maybe the biggest challenge to get people to accept eating foods that have had these changes made to them?
DJ - I think it is a misconception that we simply need to educate the public. I think the public is smarter than we take them for and I think some research has shown that giving people more information only strengthens them in their opinion regardless of whether they were for or against GM food. But I think we have to show and justify it – and the other problem is that because of the cost of the regulations, the GM produce has been driven in the hands of the really big biotech companies that already have a negative perception themselves with the general public. So, if we can do things more from involving the consumers along the way, I think we have to develop and follow the market better and develop products or animals or crops where consumers see there is a justified way. It’s not helping the companies make a profit - which is a valid reason in their own right because companies need to employ people - but also, it does help us to produce more sustainably. I think then we can get this message across.
Kat - So overall, if you could sum up the feeling that you’ve got from people presenting, the conversations that have been going on: what's the general feeling in the world of animal and plant breeding for our food – our bacon, our beer, our biofuels, our bread?
DJ - I think that at the technological level, we are all very excited and we really see good opportunities to increase food production over the next 5 years, 15 years. To make that a reality, we have to engage the industry stakeholders and the retail market. But I think from this meeting, I think there is an overall sense of optimism, how we can now combine these techniques for a more sustainable food production.
Kat - That was DJ de Koning from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.