Tinkering with chicory

Technological innovation for agricultural advancement

Chicory contains not just the dietary fibre inulin but also substances that could be used to inhibit the growth of fungi, bacteria and cancer cells. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Biotechnology offers unprecedented opportunities for plant breeding but is also the subject of public concerns. Once we start cutting and pasting DNA, where do we draw the line? To assess the technological possibilities, legal pitfalls and societal acceptance, researchers at Wageningen University & Research are collaborating with other European scientists on new breeding techniques for chicory.

Root chicory – Cichorium – is good for your health. The crop is currently cultivated as a source of the dietary fibre inulin, which improves intestinal health and the immune system. Root chicory also contains substances that could be used to inhibit the growth of fungi, bacteria and cancer cells. But it is difficult and time-consuming to increase yields of these substances using current plant breeding techniques – cross-breeding and selection. New techniques will let researchers rapidly develop new Cichorium varieties, for example with more fibres or components that could be used in medicines.

Seventeen partners from eleven European countries are collaborating in the Chicory Innovation Consortium (CHIC). They will spend four and a half years studying various aspects of such new breeding techniques for root chicory. Wageningen Plant Research, part of Wageningen University & Research, has a lot of experience with large, multidisciplinary projects and is leading the research.

New techniques let researchers rapidly develop new chicory varieties that could be used in medicines

Scientists can use CRISPR-Cas to develop disease-resistant crops that do not need pesticides. Photo: Shutterstock

The researchers are comparing innovative techniques that can speed up the plant breeding process, but they are also looking at safety and the environment, the relevant legislation, and regulations and society’s acceptance of new approaches. In the words of project coordinator Dirk Bosch: “We are developing and implementing the techniques, but we are also investigating how society at large responds. Which factors in a society hinder or promote the application of genome editing?”


CRISPR-Cas is one such promising new technique. The scientists who laid the foundations for CRISPR-Cas, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 for their discovery of the ‘genetic scissors’. The ‘scissors’ let biotechnologists in the lab make precise cuts at predefined points in a gigantic genome without destroying the entire genome. This then lets them remove undesirable genes that cause a disease or abnormality, for example. But they can also insert genes with desirable properties into the DNA.

This technique offers unprecedented opportunities for plant breeding. With CRISPR-Cas, scientists can develop disease-resistant crops that don’t need pesticides. They can also create healthier food crops, for example with more protein or extra vitamins, or crops that are better adapted to a changed climate.

What is more, the new technique makes plant breeding faster and cheaper, and therefore also applicable for crops such as root chicory with relatively small markets. Breeding programmes that used to take decades can be reduced to a couple of years with the aid of CRISPR-Cas, and breeders may only need to screen a few dozen plants instead of tens of thousands.

Root crop with potential

What makes chicory so suitable as a test crop for this research? The root crop, which is related to Belgian endive and radicchio, contains inulin. Inulin fibres stimulate the immune system and boost the growth of benign bacteria in the intestines. That is why producers add inulin as a healthy sweetener to bread and bakery products and dairy products such as yoghurt.

In the EU-funded project CHIC research is done on the applications of chicory as a multipurpose crop for dietary fibre and medical terpenes. How that works is explained in this video.

In addition to inulin, root chicory contains various terpenes. Terpenes are natural compounds that plants use to attract insects as pollinators or to protect themselves from grazers, fungi and bacteria. The terpenes in chicory give the root its bitter taste and need to be removed because consumers don’t want bitterness in products such as yoghurt. But some terpenes can inhibit the growth of microorganisms, parasites and cancer cells, or they may have other medicinal effects. The terpenes in chicory could therefore potentially be promising raw materials for medicines, such as new antibiotics and anti-inflammatories or tumour inhibitors.

Rapid plant breeding

It could take decades to breed new varieties of chicory using conventional cross-breeding methods. With CRISPR-Cas, researchers can make small, targeted changes to the plant’s DNA to improve the quality of the chicory as an industrial crop. “That can be done very efficiently”, says Bosch. “We have come up with various new plant types in our research, with better inulin quality or roots without the bitter terpenes so that they don’t need to be removed, which would give a wider range of applications. We are also working on roots with less variable inulin yields.”

Using CRISPR-Cas to improve the inulin and target terpenes for medicinal purposes is the specific task of Wageningen Plant Research in this project. The initial results are looking good, says Bosch. The international medical research groups taking part in CHIC have investigated which of the terpenes in chicory have the most potential. “The first results are very promising. This can definitely go somewhere.”

Public resistance

The development of new plant breeding techniques faces some obstacles. At present, European legislation and regulations make the use of CRISPR-Cas in crops in Europe virtually impossible in practice, says Bosch. “Current laws stipulate that every crop obtained from breeding using CRISPR-Cas is treated as a genetically modified organism (GMO) by the EU, even if it contains no DNA from a different species.” The approval of GMOs is subject to extensive safety studies. It is therefore not worth the effort for plant breeding companies in the case of minor crops with small sales markets, such as chicory.

In CHIC, we are working from the start with sociologists, economists and regulators. That is incredibly interesting

A close-up of the chicory flower in bloom. Photo: Shutterstock

What is more, there is resistance among the general public to genome editing. Because once we start tinkering with the DNA of plants, where do we draw the line? Critics wonder whether the technology is as specific as it claims to be. Does it cause other mutations too? Can outcrossing into the wild occur? And who will have access to this patented technology? Just the larger companies or the affluent West? Will farmers in poorer countries lose their livelihoods? Bosch: “I think the term ‘biotechnology’ alone evokes a whole range of associations. Getting back to nature is an important concept for a lot of people.”

In dialogue with society

The sensitivity of genome editing as a topic is also something the researchers want to explore further in this project. As Bosch explains, CHIC is also about communication and interaction with stakeholders. “Those stakeholders are not just companies but also farmers, consumer organisations, policymakers, schools and various groups in society. We will be talking to them about what they think of this technique and what they see as the advantages and disadvantages. We are trying to figure out what the limiting factors are at present and what prompts resistance.”

The CHIC researchers are taking an unusual approach to this issue. Bosch: “Often, communication about new technology has a one-sided emphasis on ‘sending’: you send your own message and explain the technique. We are trying to do this differently.” In an effort to reach the younger generation, CHIC will soon be running tests at four Dutch schools. Bosch: “Games related to our project have been developed for the smartphone. We are collaborating with artists who have taken inspiration from the CHIC project. Young people seem to be particularly open to new technologies. If gene technology can help create crops that are better for the climate or better able to cope with the heat and drought, they are willing to accept it. More so than I had expected. So it is important when you have a new technology to make clear what you want to achieve with it.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration

Bosch, a biochemist with a long track record, calls the collaboration with researchers from other disciplines “incredibly interesting”. “As a scientist, you generally work on technical solutions to societal problems on the assumption that society will automatically be pleased with what you come up with. In CHIC, we are working from the start with sociologists, economists, regulators and many other representatives of groups in society with divergent interests and opinions. It is good to take a different approach like this.”

European research context

The Chicory Innovation Consortium (CHIC) addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Setting up an innovation process for the responsible development and application of new plant breeding techniques
  • Producing high-quality consumer products that are aligned with society’s requirements and concerns

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Plant Research, Bioscience Business Unit European and other countries involved: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Spain

Duration: 2018 – 2022

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