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Japan: CRISPR tomato to be launched on the market without GMO assessment

- A Japanese company has developed a tomato with CRISPR/Cas9 that contains particularly large amounts of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Due to Japanese genetic engineering deregulation, the product can be marketed without approval.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Therefore, it is said to lower blood pressure and promote sleep. Tomatoes naturally contain a lot of GABA, but their GABA content is highest when they are still green. After that, the plant decomposes some of the substance. Professor Hiroshi Ezura and his team found out which genes control this decomposition and were able to switch off some of them with the help of Crispr/Cas 9. From this they developed the tomato variety "Sicilian Rouge High GABA" and are now marketing it through their company Sanatech Seed. It is said to contain five to six times more GABA than commercially available tomatoes.

Untested risks

Since organisms produced in Japan using new genetic engineering techniques without foreign genes do not have to be approved as GMOs, an exchange with the relevant ministry was enough to allow the GABA tomato to be marketed. "According to a Japanese consumer protection organization, there was no in-depth investigation of the risks," the institute Testbiotech told. It said the GABA tomato shows that organisms can be profoundly modified with CRISPR/Cas even if no additional genes are inserted. " Due to the multiple functions of GABA, it can be assumed that the intervention in the genetic material affects the metabolism of the tomato at various levels," Testbiotech explained. This could also lead to unintended health effects when consumed, he added. Indications of this can be found in a paper in which Professor Ezura describes the development of the tomato. Specifically, there is talk of growth disorders or less taste.

Commercialization underway

As a first step, Sanatech Seed plans to distribute seedlings to hobby gardeners this year. So far, more than 3,000 have signed up to grow GABA tomatoes for their own consumption, the company said. The Japanese Citizens' Biotechnology Information Center explained this rather uncommon step by saying that there were still patent disputes preventing commercial sales of the seeds. Sanatech Seed, on the other hand, argued that it would take time to obtain the necessary seeds for commercial cultivation.

Sanatech Seed: First Genome Edited Tomato with Increased GABA In the World (11.12.2020)

Sanatech seed: Launch of the genome-edited tomato with increased GABA in Japan (11.12.2020)

Sanatech Seed: Over 3000 people have applied for genome edited tomatoes (07.01.2021)

Hiroshi Ezura et al.: Challenges and Prospects of New Plant Breeding Techniques for GABA Improvement in Crops: Tomato as an Example (Frontiers in Plant Science, 04.09.2020)

Citizens' Biotechnology Information Center: Japan's first genome-edited food item, a tomato, gets green light for distribution (Januar 2021)

Testbiotech: ‚CRISPR tomatoes‘ approved in Japan (03.02.2021)

Testbiotech: CRISPR tomatoes - point mutations turning food into a sedative? (February 2021)