Scientists are making incredible strides in creating long-term agricultural crop improvement solutions through the modification of the genetic materials of crops in seed production. Although controversial to some, the goal is to give farmers access to crops that produce more, with a decreased dependence on pesticides, while becoming more drought resistant.
New genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and RTDS (Rapid Trait Development System) genome editing, are making it possible to more easily modify living organisms in specific ways.
According to the Heinrich Boll Foundation, headquartered in Berlin, more than 1,000 research centers are generating data on genome sequences at a breakneck pace. By 2025 there will be more data on genomics than on astronomy, it claims.
Identifying and patenting the key gene sequences in agricultural crops has been ongoing for some time now, but incorporating sequences into living crops is the new technology changing the industry. It is not so much reading genomes as it is now the ability to write and rewrite DNA. A growing list of genetic engineering techniques based on fast, flexible “gene-editing” and synthesis of DNA promise that the DNA codes of crops can be easily reshaped using digital and laboratory tools.
In New York’s Long Island, research scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) are plugging in the untapped power of genome editing to improve crops. It is allowing research scientists to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Currently using tomatoes, CSHL has mobilized CRISPR technology — segments of nucleic acid molecules capable of increasing or decreasing specific gene expressions within plants — to rapidly generate variants of the plant. It can display a wide spectrum of three separate yet crucial ag traits for improved yield: plant shape, fruit size, and branching architecture. Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects and treating and preventing the spread of diseases. The method is designed to work in all fuel, feed, and food crops, including wheat, maize, rice, and sorghum.
By using CRISPR technology to alter regulatory sequences, the CSHL crew is having a more subtle impact on quantitative traits. What is benefiting commercial agriculture is the flexibility of the genetic variations produced in CRISPR rather than deleting or inactivating the proteins they encode … and it is most likely to provide for improving yield traits.
“What we demonstrated with each of the traits was the ability to use CRISPR to generate new genetic and trait variation that breeders can use to tailor a plant to suit conditions,” Lead Researcher and CSHL Professor Zachary Lippman says in a company press release. “Each trait can now be controlled in the way a dimmer switch controls a light bulb, working with the native DNA and enhancing what nature has provided, which we believe can help break yield barriers.”
Another leading company in the agritech field is Boston-based Yield10 Bioscience, which opened in January 2017. It also operates the Oilseeds Center of Excellence in Saskatchewan, Canada. The company is focused on developing new technologies to achieve step-change improvements to crop yield to enhance global food security.
“We emerged out of the leading crop science research program of Metabolix, redirecting carbon flow in living systems to produce products, and in 2016 we restructured and rebranded around the crop science mission,” Dr. Oliver P. Peoples, President and CEO of Yield10, says.
Yield10 has focused on identifying new traits to boost inherent crop yield in major North American commercial row crops, including canola, soybean, and corn. While the introduction of GMO traits for pesticide and herbicide resistance has increased yield in these crops, Peoples says significant additional improvements in yield can be achieved through Yield10’s add-ons.
“Canola, soybean, and corn are the most valuable markets for advanced biotech seed,” Peoples says. “These commercial crops are currently GMO for herbicide tolerance or pest resistance, and we are developing new yield traits to stack on existing elite germplasm. This is where we think our technology can have the most impact.”
In 2017 Yield10 signed a research license with Monsanto to test C3003, a novel yield trait gene, in its soybean development program. It is also developing a series of traits to boost oil content in oilseed crops that are accessible using genome editing. “The acceptance of genome editing in geographies outside the U.S. may extend the reach of our crop yield technologies,” Peoples says.
Monsanto recently introduced genetically modified cotton and soybean seeds that can resist the weed killer dicamba. These products have captured more than 20% of U.S. soybean fields and 50% of U.S. cotton fields in just two years, according to Monsanto data. It is targeting greater than 50% of the U.S. soybean market in 2019.
“There are a number of companies that make genetically modified seeds,” Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s Vice President of Global Strategy, says. “They can choose not to use our products if they wish, but we want to make sure that they have that choice.”
Yield10 is differentiated by its fundamental focus on “building better plants” based on advanced metabolic engineering to discover and deploy new yield trait genes that improve the efficiency of photosynthesis and converting fixed carbon to seed or biomass, Peoples says. “Further, CRISPR genome-editing technology and its classification as a molecular breeding tool has the potential to significantly speed the development and commercialization of new traits to commercial row crops and specialty crops alike,” he adds. “Now the key is identifying new genes target to edit. Yield10 has a rich pipeline of traits in development that it plans to test alone and in combination to identify the most promising yield improving traits for commercialization.”
Cibus Global RTDS Technology
Capitalizing on the pivot occurring within crop breeding itself due to the cost of transgenic crop development coupled with a growing lack of global acceptance for these technologies is San Diego-based Cibus Global. With the industry moving from its historical focus on transgenic technology to the new field of non-transgenic breeding through targeted mutagenesis, Cibus is fine-tuning a gene-editing technology that improves a crop’s resilience while remaining carefully outside the GMO line.
Cibus has developed the advanced non-transgenic breeding system RTDS, which is known for its non-GMO approach. “Our first commercial crop, SU Canola, is an herbicide-tolerant crop that’s heartier and less susceptible to shatter when plants fall apart on the ground,” James Radtke, who oversees Cibus’ product development, says. “It’s an easy crop to work with in the lab, and one that we are selling directly.”
Cibus wants to be a trait-based company working with partners. It’s also working on programs for flax, rice, and potatoes. The potatoes are less prone to late blight — the fungal disease behind the potato famine of 1845 — and its rice and flax are also herbicide tolerant.