It is a major step forward in providing clarity in a fast moving and very promising technological field.
This Commission study, requested by the Council of the European Union in 2019, contains two JRC studies on new genomic techniques: one reviews their scientific and technological developments, and the other explores their potential commercial applications worldwide.
New genomic techniques are (finally) well defined
For several decades, many techniques have been developed that are, with varying success, capable of changing the genetic material of an organism.
Over the years, they have become more precise and the genetic changes introduced have become so subtle that sometimes they cannot be distinguished from modifications that occur in nature.
Awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 to the developers of one of these techniques, called ‘CRISPR-Cas’, has furthermore increased the debate around the potential of such techniques.
The JRC’s reports provide an important up-to-date snapshot of the technological landscape and applications that have significantly expanded over the last twenty years. Any technological approach requires the understanding of underlying concepts and an agreement on common definitions.
Another merit of the JRC’s reports is that – amid a heterogeneous landscape of terminologies - they clearly define that new genomic techniques (NGTs) are ‘all techniques to alter the genome of an organism, developed after 2001’.
Reviewing the technology landscape
According to that definition, the JRC has reviewed the technology landscape of these techniques, describing how they function, what they could be applied to and what their limitations are.
Following a systematic literature review, the JRC proposed and detailed four groups of NGTs, describing for each of them their mode of action, the induced modifications and the organisms to which the technique could be applied.
Furthermore, information on possible unintended modifications and limitations in our current understanding complement the technical descriptions for each NGT.
With this work of the JRC, the EU institutions, national authorities, as well as stakeholders, including industry and NGOs, and the public at large, have - for the first time - a clear description of NGTs that allows a common and scientifically robust understanding of these techniques and the possibilities they offer.
Current and future market applications of NGTs
The JRC’s market analysis covers the landscape of potential commercial application of NGTs worldwide for the agri-food, industrial and medicinal sectors.
It finds that there are currently only a few applications marketed worldwide. However, there are a number of identified applications at a pre-commercial stage, which could possibly reach the market within 5 years. Also, over a hundred plants and several dozen animal and medical applications could be on the market by 2030.
In the medicinal sector, there are promising uses of CRISPR-Cas and other NGTs to tackle several human diseases. In addition, CRISPR-Cas is already being applied to the search for solutions for rapid detection of COVID-19.
The JRC database of NGT applications points to the United States and China as the most frequent countries of origin, particularly in the stages closest to market. The EU, particularly Germany and France, as well as several developing countries, are also active in the field, mostly in the agricultural sector.
The Commission study, including the JRC contributions, is aimed at providing clarity on NGTs, in the form of updated and comprehensive information on a broad variety of topics (legal status, research and potential applications, safety, potential benefits and concerns, ethics, public awareness) and assisting in deciding, if appropriate, any further action in this policy area.
JRC Report: New Genomic Techniques: State-of-the-Art Review
JRC Report: New Genomic Techniques: Market Review