Gene-editing-important-for-crop-development wildpixel/Thinkstock
Plant breeders, using gene editing, will be able to boost the precision of their work tremendously in the future.

Gene editing ahead?

The precision of this technology offers tremendous potential to boost yield.

Perhaps it's the idea of "editing" that catches this copy writer's eye. Or the precision available when the new tools are described, but the world of biotech is moving into a new era. In fact, it's such a hot topic that CRISPR was one of the 'finalists' for the Time magazine Person of the Year given its potential impact for the future.

We've discussed CRISPR-Cas technology before. The folks at DuPont Pioneer are moving ahead with a program to use gene editing to improve waxy corn hybrids, and even got word from USDA that the agency will not regulate the final crop - it'll be waxy corn (or as Pioneer hopes - high-yielding waxy corn). This is technology so precise that plant breeders can turn off specific genes, or splice DNA in a way that improves productivity, but they aren't bringing in foreign DNA, which USDA and other regulators appear to like.

Recently, I had a discussion about gene editing with a company that markets tools companies can use for the process. Synthego isn't in agriculture, but Paul Dabrowski, chief executive officer, sees the potential for this tech in agriculture. One area he brought up, that surprised me, was his vision that the ease of gene editing and the efficiency of the tech "could ultimately lead to more competition in the seed business."

The reason? He explains that development takes less time. If you use a precision tool like gene editing, a plant breeder knows that the tool worked and 80% to 90% of the plants that have been "edited" have the right trait package going forward. With more 'traditional' biotech approaches, the initial phase of moving a trait into a plant is much less efficient. In fact it can be as low as 1%.

Remember, the traits you use today - Bt for insect control, and herbicide resistance traits - were brought into the corn and soybeans you plant from other sources. Bt is a bacterium and the plant is modified to express the key protein in Bt that kills target bugs. For herbicide resistance, genes from elsewhere (in plants or bacterium that showed tolerance) were brought into the plant.

It's a laborious process to get the trait in there, then once there the back-crossing into preferred plants can take time. In fact, it often turned out the plants easiest to modify - get the right traits in - where inbreds that weren't the best yielders or had other problems meant back-crossing into more desirable inbreds and varieties was needed. This new gene editing industry has only been commercial for 20  years, we're still in the infancy, and that's the point Dabrowski makes.

Consider that a corn plant has 100,000 distinct genes in its genome, and locked up in there are combinations that bring opportunity. If you could find them, or edit them, they would allow for higher yield through drought tolerance, improved nitrogen utilization and more. The genome of a plant is so complex it may be possible to edit in other traits - including herbicide tolerance or insect tolerance. This is tech that's just getting started.

"When bringing traits in from related plants, CRISPR gene editing is not too far off from plant breeding," Dabrowski says. He notes that plant breeders, through their actions, reorient the DNA in a plant through conventional means. With editing it would be possible to do the same thing on a much more precise level. "CRISPR gene editing is more accurate compared to older techniques. It's easier to validate and you could have a new level of diversity, that's why I say there's a lot of opportunity here," he says.

Dabrowski's company, Synthego, provides synthetic guide RNA to companies that helps them with the editing process. The company is able to customize the RNA to target the editing work for the customer. And he likes talking to others in industries where gene editing shows promise. "We see this technology as being easier, and more predictable, faster and cheaper. This is in fact a revolution coming in the next decade," he says.

Currently, Synthego works with both private industry and academic folks on a number of issues, mostly in medicine; but he sees potential in agriculture. And this technology is a step change. That 1% success using older biotech means pales when compared against the up to 80%-plus success of gene editing. And the testing to validate success is easier too. A quick DNA test and the breeder knows the work is a success.

This cuts the cost of development, but also opens the door to smaller seed companies to dramatically improve their products too. Biotech keeps advancing, and while there are always risks with any new technology, gene editing offers significant potential for the future.

You'll be hearing more about this.

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