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Tomatoes genome-edited for high amino acid levels get green light in Japan

This photo provided by Sanatech Seed Co. shows the new "Sicilian Rouge High-GABA" variety of genome-edited tomatoes containing a high level of gamma-aminobutyric acid.

TOKYO -- A Japanese health ministry committee on Dec. 11 granted permission to a Tokyo-based startup to sell and distribute tomatoes developed with genome-editing technology, provided notification is given.

    The startup, Sanatech Seed Co., subsequently notified the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of its plan to sell the tomatoes, which the ministry accepted. It is the first time in Japan a genome-edited food notification has been filed.

    Developed jointly by Sanatech Seed and the University of Tsukuba, the new variety, named "Sicilian Rouge High-GABA," contains around five to six times the normal level of a type of amino acid called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. This was achieved by clipping out one of the tomato's genes that inhibits the function of an enzyme that synthesizes GABA. The company maintains that the tomatoes pose no health danger as no external genes have been added to the product, and the genes of the leaves, roots, and stem of the plant have not been modified, so the genome editing has no effect on the growing environment.

    Sanatech Seed says it plans to provide seeds of the new variety for home gardening free of charge in around May or June 2021, and begin selling them to producers in around July or August the same year. The tomatoes are likely to be sold at stores from around January or February 2022.

    Previously, improving varieties of plants generally took around 10 years, but genome editing, which efficiently modifies targeted genes to change plants' nature, reduces the time to just a few years. Such editing surged following the emergence in 2012 of CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. This technique, which improved on earlier methods, was recognized with the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded to a pair of scientists from the United States and France.

    Previously when improving varieties, developers would artificially induce mutation by exposing plants to radiation, high temperatures and other environmental stress or through chemical treatment, and cross-fertilize them. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare does not require safety screening for genome-edited food that contains no genes from other plants, as such varieties cannot be distinguished from conventionally improved varieties and those with natural mutations. This was the case with the newly developed tomatoes.

    If, on the other hand, external genes are inserted into the genome, the food requires safety screening like other genetically modified products. This is because if genes enter places other than their targeted destinations, they can trigger unexpected reactions.

    Currently, if no external genes remain in a product, the ministry does not require labeling stating that it was developed through genome-editing technology. But even when external genes do not enter the plant, if a part of the genetic code other than that targeted is altered, or if specific genes disappear, it is possible other genes could function in unpredictable ways. Because of this, there have been calls for products to be labeled if genome editing has been used, regardless of whether any external genes remain.

    (Japanese original by Ryo Watanabe, Science & Environment News Department)

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