Press release

Crops improved to help reduce hunger in the world

By using genetic editing methods, a new plant breeding technology


This genetic editing method could help reduce hunger in the world. This is the analysis relayed this week in Science by an international team of researchers including Pr Hervé VANDERSCHUREN of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech (ULiège).

New plant breeding methods have emerged in recent years, including genome editing. In the journal Science, an international team of plant researchers argues that these new plant breeding technologies, carefully deployed and regulated, can make a significant contribution to global food security by offering effective and complementary alternatives to conventional breeding while being intrinsically different from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Technologies such as Rapid Generation Advance or single-seed progeny already minimize the life cycle of crops to speed up selection and fixation of genes of interest. But among these technologies, the genome editing method (CRISPR/Cas) has established itself as a reliable reference for the edition of the genome of cultivated plants, with an acceleration of applications for major cereals such as rice, wheat and maize, but also for other crops important for food security in certain regions of the world, such as bananas and cassava.

Professor Hervé Vanderschuren, who co-signs the analysis of the researchers in Science, is Head of the Laboratory of Plant Genetics of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech at ULiège. In previous research, he has already demonstrated, for example, the value and effectiveness of CRISPR-Cas9 molecular scissor technology combined with a flowering factor to generate non-transgenic cassava lines with the desired waxy starch character. The so-called waxy starch, which contains little or no amylose, is in great demand on the world market. As an important source of starch, cassava plays a major role in the food security of nearly 500 million people worldwide, and the starch contained in its roots is used in industry, opening up opportunities for local farmers, notably in Africa and Asia. This is an excellent example of the capabilities and advantages of genetic editing methods. Other ongoing projects in the Laboratory of Plant Genetics of Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech at ULiège aim at developing disease resistant plant varieties with the CRISPR/Cas9 technology to reduce the use of pesticides.

The absence of transgenes in modified genome crops could reduce the costs of regulatory procedures, accelerate innovation, increase competition in the seed industry and make improved seeds more affordable for farmers in developing countries. Therefore, it is for scientists a technology that deserves to be supported and deployed, especially in the most advanced developing countries, which are in a better position of economic strength to negotiate mutual benefits with agri-food companies.

Researchers suggest that the expected advances in genome editing technologies over the next five years could offer new solutions to pests and diseases, and make plants more resistant to climate stress. Public or public-private development of crop varieties could serve as an example to strengthen the confidence of governments and populations, and to ensure global access to the genome editing technology.

Genome editing could be a major asset in the fight against hunger and poverty, according to researchers.


Improved crops can contribute to a world without hunger, if properly managed. Science, March 29, 2019. DOI 10.1126/science.aav6316


Syed Shan-e-Ali Zaidi1,2, Hervé Vanderschuren1, Matin Qaim3, Magdy M. Mahfouz4, Ajay Kohli5, Shahid Mansoorand Mark Tester4

1 Plant Genetics, TERRA Teaching and Research Center, Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, University of Liège,
2 National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, 38000 Faisalabad, Pakistan.
3 Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, University of Goettingen, 37073 Goettingen.
4 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Biological and Environmental Sciences & Engineering Division (BESE), 23955-6900 Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.
5 Strategic Innovation Platform, International Rice Research Institute, DAPO 7777, Makati, Philippines.

CRISPR-Cas is a recently discovered new technique that uses an enzyme and a specific messenger RNA to cut the genome at a specific location, easily and quickly. The prospects for this DNA sequence modification technique (genome editing) are promising, particularly in gene therapy.

Press contacts

Prof. Hervé Vanderschuren,
Laboratoire de Génétique végétale (Plant Genetics Lab) de Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech (ULiège), 

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