Agricultural biotech giants are starting to make moves into CRISPR gene editing, saying they’ll be selling seeds engineered with the technology by the end of this decade.
DuPont said today it entered an agreement with Caribou Biosciences, a spin-off from the laboratory of Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, who carried out key work on CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that provides something like a find-and-replace feature for DNA.
DuPont says it is already growing corn and wheat plants edited with CRISPR in greenhouses and that field trials will start next spring.
“We are talking about bringing products to market in five to 10 years,” says Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at Pioneer Hi-Bred, part of DuPont’s $11-billion-per-year crop chemicals and biotech seed business. “That is a pretty damn good time line compared to other technology.”
DuPont is testing CRISPR to make drought-resistant corn as well as wheat genetically altered so it will breed like a hybrid, rather than self-pollinate as it typically does. Hybrid plants are vigorous, and yields can jump by 10 or 15 percent.
A growing list of plant types have already been genetically engineered with CRISPR-Cas9 in academic laboratories, including soybeans, rice, and potatoes. Last month, a Japanese team used gene editing to turn off fruit-ripening genes in tomato plants.
As part of their collaboration, DuPont said it had made an investment in Caribou, a small startup that holds commercial rights to patents Berkeley has applied for on CRISPR-Cas9. DuPont will have exclusive rights to those patents in crops like corn and soybeans, should they be approved.
Gutterson said the objectives of plant labs include engineering resistance to blights or to low rainfall by rapidly introducing beneficial gene variants found in other varieties of the same species. Using conventional breeding to move traits can take many years. “It takes a lot of time and is not as precise as we would like,” says Gutterson. “We could very much short-cut that.”
Currently, most GMOs are transgenic plants that have been engineered by adding bacterial genes to the plants so that they poison insects or survive weed sprays. Thanks to biotechnology, the seed business has ballooned to about $40 billion a year, and companies like Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta have come to dominate it. But the need to invest millions more in a sweeping technology shift hits as depressed commodity markets have made the profitability of biotech seeds less certain.
Gutterson says DuPont thinks gene editing will kick off a new wave of products and profits. “We have no doubt that genome editing is going to have a material impact on the value proposition,” he says. “We think another whole cycle could come from genome editing.”
Gene editing could lead to some surprising creations in agriculture. For instance, peanuts have a number of proteins responsible for allergies. Getting rid of them is challenging, but allergy-free peanuts might be possible with the new technology.
Other companies, like Cellectis and Dow, have already used older, more cumbersome forms of gene editing to develop corn and potato varieties (see “A Potato Made with Gene Editing”), but the simplicity of the CRISPR system could swiftly increase the number, and novelty, of plants reaching the market.
One obstacle gene editing can help overcome is that many plants are polyploid, which means they carry duplicate copies of their genomes—sometimes as many as six, as in wheat. But CRISPR can be “multiplexed” to affect all copies of a gene, or to target dozens of genes at once, as Chinese scientists demonstrated by editing wheat last year (see “Chinese Researchers Stop Wheat Disease with Gene Editing”).
Companies hope gene-edited crops could be largely exempted from regulation. Already, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has told several companies that it will not regulate these plants because they don’t contain genes from other species. However, it’s unclear how the European Union or China will approach plants made with the new methods.
“The real issue is what happens globally,” says Gutterson. “Here you are working within the genome of one species, with products that are going to be that species. We hope the regulations will reflect the risk, and in a way that permits good time lines.”