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Crop science and technology continues to grow

Recently, I got the chance to attend a couple sessions at a unique event BASF held in Chicago as part of its celebration of the company's 150th birthday. There, they gathered scientists from around the country, and the world, to discuss research and opportunities for the future. I'll be detailing some of the discussions I heard in the coming weeks, but I wanted to start this conversation with an interesting concept - genome editing.

The BASF event isn’t the first time I'd heard of the concept - I've been reading about the idea (yes, after I read Farm Industry News, I branch out) and there's even been news of the concept applied in a human in Japan. The idea is using tools to take out, or add in, specific traits through a process that can reorient genes in that genome to achieve the desired result.

DuPont Pioneer recently announced an agreement with Vilnius University in Lithuania to get access to the technology and it's growing in interest across a lot of companies.

Like any new technology, genome editing will raise hopes and controversy. One technique used involves a tool called CRISPR - pronounced Crisper - which is the tech DuPont Pioneer will explore. There are two others - TALENs and ZFNs. All three are acronyms for longer terms. For CRISPR it's Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats; for TALENs it's Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases; and for ZFNs means Zinc-Finger Nucleases. You can learn a bit more from this Genetic Engineering News article.

Each offers a much more precise way of inserting, or removing, genes from a genome. And it's exciting stuff, but it's also going to be a tough story to tell a science-challenged general public.

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Since I started writing about biotech crops in the late 1980s there was a concern about the tech. However, what researchers were doing was pushing specific genes into crops - through different means - and growing out only those plants that showed a benefit. The precision has improved and the process has gotten better, but we're still just passed the Model T stage of this tech. Genome editing gets us something more - advanced precision and genomic changes that when done may produce a crop with NO external DNA.

For example, if a specific trait in a Brazilian soybean will boost all other soybeans by making them bushier and produce healthier pods - but it's a wild type and the gene for that is nowhere in our domestic lines those lines could be 'edited' to include that gene. At the end of the day, you're genetically enhancing soybeans with soybean DNA - so is it a GMO?

You'll be hearing more about genome editing. I'm excited about the possibilities of this tech to boost resistance to disease for plants, enhance production and seed quality and overcome external environmental issues. In livestock there's great potential too as scientists better understand the complete genome for the protein-producers we count on. Yet count on more questions.

Genome editing is incredibly precise. Far beyond the idea of exposing plants to Cesium or some other radioactive product to produce potentially positive mutations (which has been done in the past - and thank you for that bicolor sweet corn), this new technology can identify the needed trait and put it right where it should be on the genome.

Science-based research with a solid regulatory framework- which we already have - will help bring this technology forward. Naysayers may slow the progress, but they won't stop the process.

In the coming weeks I'll look at a few items we heard about at the BASF event - including growing plants in high-CO2 environments to learn about climate change; the challenge of weed resistance on a global scale and more. As for genome editing, stay tuned.

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