This blog entry will describe my modest Summer 2016 cultivation containing a few plants that might not look like much, but are the beginning of making available knowledge help “save the world”. One of the plant’s genes has been “edited”, so to speak, using CRISPR/Cas9 technology in which a small part of the DNA has been removed.
The exact same change can also occur spontaneously – not targeted and on purpose like in this case – which has meant that the big question is whether these plants should be considered genetically modified (GMO) or not. The topic of categorising these plants is discussed worldwide. As a result, we succeeded in convincing a Swedish authority to state that, according to their interpretation, the plants could not be considered genetically modified in accordance to EU regulations as they do not contain any “foreign DNA”. It’s also impossible to establish if the decisive change occurred spontaneously or through human interference. In fact, it would be rather odd to have two plants that are exactly the same but one is forbidden and the other is free to cultivate without limitations. That’s the only reasonable interpretation. Even if the plant was to be seen as GMO, it would probably be impossible for someone who cultivates it to be convicted for something that couldn’t be proven.
Future garden plants are here!
The fundamental principle ought to be that a prosecutor must be able to prove that a crime has been committed for a person to be convicted for it. Read our application to the Swedish Board of Agriculture together with links to some of what has been written on the topic since the decision was made public: ”Green light in the tunnel!” Swedish board of agriculture: A CRIPRS/Cas9-mutant but not a GMO. I have previously described how immensely difficult to get permission for field studies with plants classed as GMO, in reality it is only in Sweden in the entire EU where this is allowed. For those who want to grow a glowing plant in the garden.This is rather intriguing. Listen to my talk at TedxUmeå in May 2016 where I promised to grow these plants outdoors this summer. I showed a bag of seeds that spectators probably assumed to be seeds from genome-edited Arabidopsis plants that I was describing. But actually, they were seeds from gene-edited cabbage, and it’s that cultivation I will be describing henceforth.
31 May 2016 It’s now time to start sowing. I’m sat on my decking overlooking the Ume River whilst filling peat pots with soil. The weather has been beautiful, but the evening is getting cold.
I have no idea about the seeds’ germination qualities, but good soil, room temperature and moderate amounts of water should wake the seeds out of their slumber. I mark the pots not to confuse them with all the other pots sharing the space on the window sill in my conservatory.
11 June 2016 The seeds have sprouted! I was worried as we had left them for a few days to look after our grandchildren and small pots stand a high risk of drying out. Admittedly, I still have a few seeds if necessary, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be the case – not as long as I remember to water these. The light and temperature on the window sill of the conservatory is good.
20 June 2016 The climate can be harsh close to the Lapland border, so I choose to be cautious not to risk late frost ruin my crop. We’ve got our hands on some old pallet collars and one of them will offer a suitable new home to the plants. In the other pallets, salad, peas and Swiss chard are already flourishing. Another one hosts some wild strawberries and another some strawberry plants. I have no idea how big these plants will get, but my guess is that 11 in one pallet collar should be roomy enough.
Wise from previous attempts of growing cabbage, I plan to cover them with a cloth. Some years, the crop is not prone to be attacked, but other years diamond-back moths take their toll on the plants. The moth shouldn’t survive the winters this far up north, instead it spreads depending on wind and weather. I have a cloth in my garage, but nothing appropriate to secure it with. I produce a framework out of steel wire that I hope will support the cloth and at the same time keep it tight enough to shut the diamond-back moth out.
4 July 2016 I came home from a conference in Prague only to realise that my moth protection didn’t quite work. A few of the plants have already been nibbled at. Cabbage moths are protected against the chemical defence of cabbage plants – glucosinolates. These glucosinolates are poisonous to insects and only those who develop an enzyme to break down the glucosinolates can eat the cabbage, for instance the diamond-back moth, cabbage butterfly, the green-veined white butterfly and a few others. These insects have gained a valuable source of food where they don’t need to compete with other insects and have instead ended up as vermin in our gardens. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Next time, I won’t sow radishes by the Swiss chard as they attract diamond-back moths. My mission now is to inspect the plants as often as possible to remove any visible moth larvae. It might all turn out fine, but I’m getting slightly worried as this seems to be one of those moth-rich years. The Swedish Board of Agriculture writes: “An abundant amount of diamond-back moths are flying across large parts of the country” in their progress report. I only need to take a glance at my pallet collars to agree.
16 July 2016 Darn. I’ve been unable to keep the moths away and they have done a fair bit of damage. I decide to remove the cover as it doesn’t seem to protect the plants anyway. That also makes it easier to pick off the larvae, which I will make sure I do every day to prevent the attacks from making too much damage.
28 July 2016 The fight against the diamond-back moths is going in the right direction. The cabbage plants are growing and are not under too much attack at the moment, but they don’t look super fresh either. My wife reckons marigolds will keep some vermin away. In my mind, they have only proven effective against certain roundworms and I doubt that the diamond-back moth will care, but she still continues to plant at least a couple of marigolds among the cabbage. They can stay. It’s not like they can make things any worse and they’re at least a sight for sore eyes.
14 August 2016 A growth spurt in the pallet collar. I was hoping they would grow a bit quicker, but some of the plants have at least started developing inflorescence. The day of first harvest is drawing close. I’ll probably pick not only the inflorescence but also a bit of the shoot similar to when you harvest broccoli. Although the inflorescence on these plants is much smaller than that on broccoli.
16 August 2016 This is the day! Gustaf Klarin from Radio Sweden has joined me for this, maybe, historic event: I’ll be cooking the first dinner based on a CRISPR genome-edited plant in the world. It’s unlikely to have happened previously in Europe (as they’re only allowed in Sweden) and I have attempted to find out whether this really could be a world première. No one that I have asked has heard about it, but there is no way I can be certain. In some countries, I wouldn’t be surprised if people kept it a secret. One thing is clear: it’s the first time ever this is done publicly (and legally). Gustaf Klarin interviews me out by the pallet collar before I harvest some of the plants and show him into my kitchen. I thought long and hard on how to cook this novel meal and came to the conclusion to try something completely new – at a venture. It would be a shame if the first meal ever using “future plants” would taste aweful, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Apart from the cabbage, I picked some Swiss chard, mange-tout and some of a rather special onion plant that was passed onto me by a friend more than 20 years ago. Actually, I’m not quite sure what it is as I haven’t found anything like it in any gardening book. Not even my colleague Roland von Bothmer – who is somewhat of a specialist on onion systematis – recognises my pictures of it.
I take a lap around my herb garden and pick up some of this and some of that. Having washed the vegetables, I bring the pasta water to the boil. Just before it boils, I start frying the vegetables.
I put the cooked pasta into a bowl together with the vegetables, Västerbotten cheese (a local hard cheese from my region) together with herbs and spices. It’s brilliant sunshine, so we choose to have our meal out on the decking. Gustaf gets the honour as the first person in the world to help himself to a CRISPR meal.
In a hurry, I roasted some bruschetta bread on our new outdoor barbeque to have as a side dish if worst came to worst. To our delight – and to some extent to my surprise – the meal turned out really nice, though. Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed. The sun was shining, the view over the Ume River was just as soothing as usual as we wrote growing and cooking history.
I’ll be excited to hear the interview, as presented måndag 5 September 2016 in Sveriges Radio – Odla med P1 (a Swedish radio show on cultivation). Sveriges radio: Umeåprofessor serverar sin egen CRISPR-sallad (In Swedish). Given that this was a historic meal, I feel inclined to offer the recipe:
Tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables
300g CRISPR genome-edited cabbage (flowers and young leaves) – can be replaced by broccoli or similar
200g Swiss chard
10 leaves of mysterious onion plant – to be replaced with a third of a leek
Good quality olive oil
2 large, chopped cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp chili flakes
400g fresh tagliatelle pasta
100ml of freshly grated Västerbotten cheese – can be replaced with Parmesan cheese
50–100ml chopped, fresh herbs, in particular marjoram, thyme, oregano, tarragon and parsley, 2 coriander leaves, 2 peppermint leaves
Recipe: Boil the pasta according to the instructions on the packaging. Pour the oil in a hot frying pan and fry the garlic and chili flakes for one minute. Cut the vegetables in large chunk and add them to the frying pan. Fry on high heat for 3–4 minutes until they brown and turn CRISPRy. Drain the pasta and pour in a bowl together with the vegetables. Grind some salt over the mixture, sprinkle the cheese and finely chopped herbs on top and mix the ingredients around gently. Serve immediately with bruschetta (rub chopped garlic onto some toasted bread and add a mixture of olive oil, chopped basil and chopped tomatoes).
PS. We didn’t finish all the cabbage. Here’s when kids and grandkids tried them the following weekend. Just like many other kinds of cabbage, they were rather bitter eaten raw, but still quite tasty.
Blog and pictures by Stefan Jansson, Professor of Plant Cell and Molecular Biology at Umeå University. You can read the Swedish version of the blog Framtidens trädgårdsväxter är redan här!