Gene editing may be future of plant breeding

New technology is cheaper and more publicly acceptable than genetic modification

Fifty million is a lot of money, and $100 million is a whole lot more.

It now costs somewhere in that range for crop science companies to get a transgenic crop trait through the regulatory system and into farm fields in North America.

Seeing how it also takes years, possibly five to 10, to get such a trait to market, industry scientists and accountants are thinking long and hard about transgenic technology for crops other than corn and soybeans.

Dave Charne, DuPont Pioneer research director for Canada, said all technologies and options remain on the table, but it is harder to justify transgenics for canola.

“Corn is probably an order of magnitude bigger than canola, in terms of value of the industry, and hence the willingness of developers to invest in that kind of initiative,” Charne said.

“Regulatory costs today are quite high. There are a lot of different estimates out there, but we can say it costs clearly tens of millions of dollars from the start of discovery to having a commercial (transgenic) trait on the marketplace.”

Still, Charne said the crop science sector has developed genetically modified traits for canola and will likely continue to do so.

“The canola industry is big enough that that investment can be justified,” he said. “(But) with the transgenic approach, you’re in a completely different world in terms of the cost and the whole regulatory dimension.”

Regulatory costs for genetically modified crops are much higher because companies have to conduct extensive safety tests on the novel traits.

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DuPont and other big players in the seeds and traits industry are more cautious now about transgenic traits because another technology has arrived that is cheaper and less controversial.

Gene editing, using a technique called CRISPR, has been touted as the next big thing in plant science. It allows researchers to precisely delete or insert genes in a plant’s DNA without disturbing other portions of the genome.

In a news release last year an-nouncing a licensing agreement with a gene editing company, Monsanto described the technique as the “biological equivalent to the ‘search and replace’ function in computer word processors.”

“Monsanto believes gene editing technologies have the potential to improve a number of crops within our current research portfolio, which includes corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, wheat and fruits and vegetable crops,” Camille Scott of scientific communications with Monsanto said in an email.

“We are in the early days of exploring the potential application of this promising science and expect to graduate this research into our R&D pipeline going forward.”

The situation is similar at DuPont, where scientists are dedicating time and resources to gene editing.

“We could say that it’s a technology whose time has come,” Charne said.

Despite the hype around gene editing, crop companies aren’t abandoning transgenics.

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“Monsanto’s R&D efforts are always focused on delivering products that solve real problems for farmers and ultimately help feed a growing society,” Scott said. “That’s our priority no matter the type of technology we’re developing.”

Charne said DuPont will continue with transgenic traits for canola, but it needs to be a “step change” trait, something that improves yield by 10 percent or more.

DuPont and Monsanto may be committed to transgenics and traditional GM traits, but they are also aware of regulatory challenges and public hostility to such products.

For example, Reuters reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency received more than 400,000 public comments about Dow’s Enlist technology, in which corn and soybeans are tolerant of glyphosate and a new formulation of 2,4-D.

The scrutiny delayed the full release of Enlist from about 2013 until now. The technology will finally come to market this spring.

In contrast, it’s possible that traits created through gene editing will receive little or no oversight. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided a gene editing trait that delays browning in mushrooms would not be subject to regulatory approval.

Gene editing does have its limitations. It wouldn’t be possible to create something like B.t. corn with the technology because corn genetics don’t have resistance to a pest such as the European corn borer.

“You can modify what exists (in a plant’s DNA) in much more precise ways (with gene editing) … but you can’t bring in … absolutely new and novel traits,” Peter Pauls, department chair in plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, said in 2015. “The old technology … there are no species boundaries. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the magic of it.”

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