The research institute CREA is experimenting with CRISPR to improve Italian typical products. The project called BIOTECH is funded with 6 million euros from the Italian ministry of agriculture. Wheat, tomatoes, vines, fruits and more are on the menu, as reported by me in a 6-pages feature published in Le Scienze, the national edition of Scientific American.
Twelve research groups are working on as many sub-projects for three years. The project’s first goal is to increase the number of Italian scientists involved in the field of cisgenesis and genome editing, both examples of non-transgenic manipulation. With the first approach, useful genes are transferred from sexually compatible varieties. With the second one, harmful genes are turned off by generating small changes indistinguishable from spontaneous mutations.
“It is an investment in know-how in a strategic sector,” says Luigi Cattivelli, director of the CREA Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Center and also head of this project. Italy has invested millions of euros in plant genomes sequencing in the past, and researchers now want to use this genomic knowledge to breed more sustainable quality agriculture.
CREA will try to quantify the economic and environmental benefits of products under study as well as consumers’ willingness to buy them. Much will depends on EU regulations on non-transgenic GM crops. “Anyway, even in the most restrictive regulatory scenario, the BIOTECH project will bear fruit,” argues Cattivelli. Either directly through the release of edited plants, or indirectly, by helping develop conventional varieties possessing the same beneficial mutations identified using CRISPR.