New varieties of chicory serve growers and consumers

Chicory is a crop with great potential. Crispr-Cas, a breeding technique not yet approved in the European Union (EU), can be used to develop new chicory varieties with improved characteristics.

New varieties not only increase the diversity and sustainability of agricultural production, but also meet consumer needs. After all, the varieties also produce improved dietary fiber and medicinal substances.

Within the Chicory Innovation Consortium (Chic) project, Crispr-Cas has succeeded in blocking the breakdown of the ingredient inulin in chicory. Chicory root is rich in this natural, soluble dietary fiber. Due to the reduced breakdown, a longer harvest period is possible and carrots can be stored longer with a constant inulin quality. The inulin in the roots is of a higher quality with less sugar accumulation.

With Crispr-Cas, it is possible to cut away small parts at a specific place in the DNA. For example, in the genes that ensure that inulin breaks down or that chicory tastes bitter. Because highly targeted mutations can be made in the genome, this method is fast and efficient and does not require years of backcrossing.

I am amazed at how much we have achieved in this five-year project

Dirk Bosch, project manager Wageningen University & Research

The bottleneck, however, lies in the fact that Crispr-Cas is not permitted as a normal breeding technique within the EU. The EU sees this modern method as genetic modification, and the technique cannot therefore be used.

The participants in Chic hope that the results of the project will change this perception. Development of new traits and varieties can take up to thirty years using traditional breeding methods. As long as the EU continues to see Crispr-Cas as genetic modification, the improved properties will not be available in practice.

Faster processing

Thanks to the Chic project, much more knowledge has been gathered about the chicory genome, which means that traditional breeding can also go faster. The project results were recently presented to chicory growers in Wageningen.

“The new chicory lines offer product diversification for growers and health benefits for consumers,” says project leader Dirk Bosch from Wageningen University & Research. ‘Inulin quality can be improved by inactivating enzymes that break down inulin. This gives more flexibility in the harvest campaign, both during harvest and delivery.’ Because the chicory plant no longer breaks down the inulin into sugar, the inulin yield is higher.

Without bitter substances

The Chic project has also discovered that chicory varieties without bitter substances make inulin production simpler and cheaper. It reduces production costs, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This ultimately results in a higher margin for the grower.

For consumers, inulin offers a number of health benefits. The dietary fibers provide improved intestinal health and promote healthy digestion by increasing the fiber content of the food. In addition, inulin plays an important role in the regulation of our immune system and can act as a functional substitute for sugar and fat. This in turn reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, inulin has long been part of the daily diet and is used in all kinds of products. Think dairy products, bread and bakery products, confectionery, breakfast cereals, savory products, infant nutrition and nutritional supplements and beverages.

Anticancer activity

Research also shows that some bitter substances in chicory have a medicinal effect. With Crispr-Cas, it is possible to specifically produce these drugs in chicory. ‘With this we have modified chicory in such a way that costunolide accumulates. This is a natural substance with proven anti-cancer activity. Chicory is a difficult crop to grow, but I am surprised at how much we have achieved in this five-year project’, concludes Bosch.

Chic is in the closing phase, but the communication about the project does not stop, says innovation manager Matthew de Roode from Sensus. The chicory processor is also a participant in the project. ‘We will not see chicory in the field for the time being with the methods developed within Chic, but the research is continuously used in discussions with the EU’s political decision-makers.’

De Roode reports that the research results are used to explore the possibilities of achieving faster results also in traditional breeding. Sensus is also carrying out two internal research projects on the possibilities of using bitter substances. For example as veterinary medicine or addition to plant protection products.

Four Dutch companies in broadly supported research

The Chic project started in January 2018 and will run for five years. It is almost finished. The European Union invested 7.3 million euros in the project from the Horizon 2020 programme. In Chic, seventeen companies, research centers and universities from twelve countries joined forces to produce healthy dietary fiber and medicinal substances in chicory using modern breeding techniques. Three Dutch participants are involved in the project as research partners: WUR, Sensus and KeyGene. The Inulin Chicory Growers Association participated as a stakeholder in the monitoring of the project.

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