New technology promises faster trait development

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A new technology that allows scientists to precisely add, delete or edit genes will speed up delivery of new crop traits to farmers, says the company that owns it.

Dow AgroScience’s ExZact Precision Technology uses zinc-finger proteins to modify a DNA sequence in a plant genome exactly where scientists want it to be modified.

“This really is a better way to develop products and the whole industry is going towards this,” said Sharon Berberich, out-licensing leader for ExZact.

“All our competitors are scrambling to get access to this technology.”

Conventional agricultural biotechnology is based on engineering changes at random locations in the plant, which forces researchers to then screen and select for plants that are modified at the desired location.

With ExZact, scientists are able to insert, delete or modify genes precisely where they want. That will speed up the trait development process, which typically takes six to 10 years.

“You might be able to shave off a year or two in development,” Berberich told Canadian journalists attending a media tour of Dow’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

Companies that develop new crop traits for farmers will also reap the associated efficiency gains.

“You can either cut your costs by half or you can increase your capacity. We need to increase our capacity,” Berberich said.

The zinc-finger proteins can be used to cause desired mutations at specific DNA sequences, creating a product that is indistinguishable from mutation breeding.

Dow hopes regulators will view such products as non-genetically modified, and it has an early indication from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that that will be the case for one specific corn line created using the technology.

ExZact can also be used to insert a gene or multiple genes at specific locations in the plant, but it would then be deemed a GM crop.

Even then, company officials hope the regulatory burden will be reduced because regulators won’t have to test for unintended effects because the science is so precise.

Dow has used the technology to create a stacked trait line of corn by inserting a herbicide tolerance gene into a plant and simultaneously using targeted mutagenesis to knock out an existing gene that produces phytate, a component of feed corn that pigs and chickens have a hard time digesting.

Dow is the exclusive owner of the proprietary ExZact technology, which it bought from Sangamo BioSciences Inc. of Richmond, California. However, it plans to make it accessible to competitors through licensing agreements and collaborations.

The company already has agreements in place with companies and research institutes to use the zinc-finger proteins to create new traits for potatoes, tomatoes and sugar beets.

Dow has also donated the technology to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to improve the nutritional value and virus resistance in cassava, a root crop that is the primary food source for more than 750 million people in developing countries

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