In a suburban Minneapolis laboratory, a tiny company that has never turned a profit is poised to beat the world's biggest agriculture firms to market with the next potential breakthrough in genetic engineering - a crop with'edited' DNA. Calyxt Inc, an eight-year-old firm co-founded by a genetics professor, altered the genes of a soybean plant to produce healthier oil using the cutting-edge editing technique rather than conventional genetic modification. Seventy-eight farmers planted those soybeans this spring across 17,000 acres in South Dakota and Minnesota, a crop expected to be the first gene-edited crop to sell commercially, beating out Fortune 500 companies. Seed development giants such as Monsanto, Syngenta AG and DowDuPont Inc have dominated genetically modified crop technology that emerged in the 1990s. But they face a wider field of competition from start-ups and other smaller competitors because gene-edited crops have drastically lower development costs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided not to regulate them.
Agricultural biotech heavyweight Monsanto has licensed the use of CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology from the Broad Institute at Harvard University and MIT. Monsanto intends to use CRISPR to make crops like corn and soybeans more fruitful and more resistant to diseases and drought, says Tom Adams, Monsanto's head of biotechnology. "Getting more productivity out of less acres with less inputs is clearly a critical thing for humanity," he says. "And gene editing is another tool that can help us accelerate that." CRISPR allows researchers to remove and replace bits of DNA in a much more targeted way than previous genetic modification techniques.
Monsanto Co. MON 0.23% is opening its next chapter in genetic technology--and may face tougher competition. The St. Louis company is investing in gene editing in an effort to keep an edge over rival suppliers of high-tech crop seeds. Monsanto has signed a string of licensing deals to add new gene-editing capabilities to its established methods of genetically modifying seeds, or creating GMOs. Dr. Robert Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, said gene editing could help corn plants thrive in dry conditions, or produce tastier bell peppers. "It's a breakthrough technology," he said.
A world without hunger is possible but only if food production is sustainably increased and distributed and extreme poverty is eliminated. Globally, most of the poor and undernourished people live in rural areas of developing countries, where they depend on agriculture as a source of food, income, and employment. International data show a clear association between low agricultural productivity and high rates of undernourishment (1). Global studies have also shown that rapid reduction of extreme poverty is only possible when the incomes of smallholder farmers are increased (2). Therefore, sustained improvement in agricultural productivity is central to socioeconomic development.
In the early days of gene editing, biologists had a molecular tool kit that was somewhat akin to a printing press. Which is to say, altering DNA was a messy, labor-intensive process of loading genes onto viruses bound for target cells. It involved more than a fair amount of finger-crossing. Today, scientists have the genetic equivalent of Microsoft Word, and they are beginning to edit DNA almost as easily as software engineers modify code. Call it the Great Crispr Quake of 2012.