Neil Ward, General Manager of PacBio EMEA, examines the potential impact of the UK’s Precision Breeding Bill.

Genomic sequencing holds the potential to unlock powerful insights that will advance our understanding of all life. In recent years, governments and national healthcare systems have begun exploring how genomic sequencing can be applied to critical societal issues. We’ve seen this most recently in the UK via the new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. This legislation aims to support the development of crops that will bolster food security in the face of climate change and a growing population.

Precision breeding will be powered by highly accurate long-read genome sequencing, which gives researchers a complete and accurate picture of genetic variation by combining insights from both the genome and the epigenome.

Having this deep foundation of genetic resources will enable researchers to produce higher-yielding, more nutritious foods faster than via traditional breeding. The bill is a step towards being able to sustainably feed the world despite challenging environmental and social circumstances.

Addressing global challenges

As the human population continues to grow, so does the pressure on food supply. The demand for more food, combined with the challenges that climate change poses to the agriculture industry are driving innovation in this space. Precision breeding holds the promise of improving nutritional content, and producing anti-allergenic crops that use fewer pesticides and fertilisers and are resistant to climate change.

For millennia, farmers have been attempting to improve the next generation of plants and animals by crossing strains, that have desirable traits, with one another. Since the 1920’s, farmers have accelerated that process in crops by mutation breeding. By exposing plant seeds to chemicals or radiation to induce thousands of random mutations, new varieties of crops with desirable traits were successfully developed. But this shotgun approach of forcing random mutations also brought with it detrimental changes. Today, modern molecular biology techniques allow much more precise changes to be made without the accompanying mutations, with the added benefit of being faster than selective breeding.

To be successful in precision breeding, a complete map of the genome is needed to not only identify whether the intended genetic changes have taken place, but also to monitor for the introduction of unintended genomic changes. Highly accurate, comprehensive genetic sequencing is critical for both the initial mapping and quality control when developing new crop varieties.

What’s next for genomics?

In addition to its potential in fields like agriculture, highly accurate long-read sequencing also holds huge promise in areas including human genomics, microbial genomics, oncology, and gene therapy. But to create a world where everyone can benefit from genomics, we must continue filling the gaps in our knowledge about plants, animals, and humans. It took scientists until 2022 to sequence the first complete human reference genome. Yet as a reference, it fails to represent the huge genetic diversity of humanity and risks further entrenching healthcare inequality. Projects like the Human Pangenome Project, which PacBio is proud to be a member of, are working to address this lack of diversity.

The UK is in a strong position to lead the way in the future evolution of genomics. It has a well-established, pioneering genomics heritage, with a rich history spanning Watson, Crick and Franklin’s discovery of the DNA double helix, Fred Sanger’s pioneering sequencing method and early attempts at cloning such as Dolly the sheep. The country is also paving the way with other projects that will transform our understanding of the natural world, including a plan to map the DNA of all 70,000 species of life on the British Isles.

Fulfilling the promise of such projects and accelerating precision breeding innovation depends on having the most accurate and complete picture of genomic variation as possible. Only then can scientists uncover the complex and unique regions of the genome that until now have been hidden, and use these insights to accelerate scientific discoveries that better human health and the future of our planet.