By Ms Odireleng Keipopele, Patent Examiner (Biochemistry), ARIPO
In the era where the world is faced with climate change, scientists have been consistently working to develop new crop varieties that are not only high yielding but also resistant to relevant abiotic stresses such as drought, salinity, flooding, and biotic stresses such as insects and pathogens. The use of CRISPR-Cas 9 technology has proven to become useful in terms of food security. CRISPR-Cas 9 technology has aided agriculture to combat threats targeting crop production. It can be used to increase crop yield and longer lasting produce to mitigate the mass starvation that humans are facing.
What are the Benefits of CRISPR Technology?
The benefits of CRISPR gene editing are to improve traditional plant breeding methods by making permanent changes in a plant genome without transferring the genes from another plant. The improved plant may become resistant to biotic stresses (bacteria, virus, or fungi) and abiotic stresses (climatic changes).
What Is CRISPR- Cas 9 Technology?
CRISPR-Cas 9 is a technology that enables the change to an organism’s DNA by adding or removing or altering the genes to change the gene expression of an organism. The technology is limited to the DNA naturally occurring in the organism’s gene pool.
How did it come about?
The technology is adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system of a bacteria wherein the bacteria uses it as a defence mechanism against the invasion of a virus in their system. The bacteria would capture the snippets of DNA from invading viruses and use them to create DNA segments called CRISPR arrays. The CRISPR arrays would then be used to remember the virus and if the virus attacks, the bacteria would produce an RNA from the CISPRR arrays to target the virus’s DNA and the bacteria then uses Cas-9 or a similar enzyme to cut the DNA apart which disables the virus.
Researchers have been using the technology for advanced breeding tool through making cuts at specific locations in a plant genome to create the desired breeds. CRISPR technology has enhanced global agriculture and much needed improvement in food security by breeding the new CRISPR plants. Using CRISPR genome edited traits can assist in making crops more resilient to harsh weathers and disease pressures.
Milestone Reached Using CRISPR Technology
What’s the Benefit to Sub Saharan Africa?
The use of CRISPR-Cas 9 technology on research is also taking place in Africa. Cassava is a starchy root crop which is a staple food to most African countries. It is an excellent food security due to its tolerance for drought and marginal soils but contains toxic glucosides that are very lethal. The research using CRISPR Cas 9 technology has been used to remove the genes that catalyse the synthesis of cyanogen in cassava. Scientists in Uganda also have begun moving gene extracts into cassava cells in a first of its kind research trial using CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing tool to develop varieties that can resist cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).
Is the Patent System the Way Forward in Protecting the New Innovations from CRISPR-Cas 9 Technology?
Protection of the innovated CRISPR plants may be protected using:
- Sue generis Plant Variety Protection
- Trade Secret
Governed by Article 27 (1) of the TRIPS Agreement, patent protection shall be provided for any new inventions, whether a product, or processes in all fields of technology provided they are new, non-obvious (inventive step) and capable of industrial application.
Article 27 (3) of the TRIPS Agreement also allows for the member states to protect new plant varieties using a patent or by any effective sui generis system, therefore this allows for the protection of the asexually reproducible plants.
The utility patent would be used to prevent others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing the patented invention throughout the protection period, usually 20 years. The patent protection on the CRISPR plants can be obtained for the newly created genomic sequence, the newly created cells, and the methods for producing the same. Depending on the national laws, the new CRISPR plants may be protected using a patent.
In 2020, 152 patents have been filed worldwide relating to the use of CRISPR tools in agriculture.
Sui Generis’ Plant Variety Protection
Most countries/ regions have enacted the sui generis legislation for the protection of new plant varieties, of which CRISPR plants are included. New plant variety protection provides the owner the exclusive rights to perform certain acts concerning the exploitation of the protected variety that includes, production, selling and licensing.
ARIPO has established a regional Sui Generis legislation (Arusha Protocol) for the protection of new plant varieties.
India has established a Sui Generis legislation called Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act (2001) (PPVFRA) which is used to protect the breeder’s rights, regulation of the new plant varieties.
In Egypt, the new plant varieties are protected under Book 4 of the law of IP Rights 82, 2002.
The use of a trade secret can be regarded as an alternative or a supplement to patent protection for the protection of the new genome sequences as well as the method of production. Commercial DNA synthesis providers may develop secret database and maintain the secrecy of the designed sequences.
CRISPR Cas 9 genome editing technique has dominated bio-tech plant agriculture technology. The efficiency and flexibility of the technology has resulted in its use in a wide variety of crops to develop traits of interests which may include high crop yields, herbicides resistance, drought tolerance, disease resistance and faster growth. CRISPR Cas 9 has immensely revolutionised plant breeding and has contributed to the growing patented inventions in this fields. In Sub-Saharan Africa there is still a need to improve most of the traditional crops/plants using the CRISPR technology to cope mostly with climatic changes and the plant related diseases. The role of the national patent systems is therefore an integral part of the larger scheme of addressing food security in the continent.
- TRIPS Agreement, Article 27 (1); (3) (b)
- Food Security and Biotechnology_Bagley-09032.pptx.