Gene editing is a hot issue these days. The technology, which allows very precise changes to the genetics of a specific plant, offers the promise of both producer and consumer benefits for the future. And that dual benefit is what drove J.R. Simplot Co. to make a new deal recently.
Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have initiated a joint intellectual property licensing agreement with J.R. Simplot. The deal is a first made by Corteva Agriscience — the agriculture division of DowDuPont — and Broad Institute, which agreed on a joint non-exclusive licensing framework for ag use earlier this year. This license gives Simplot access to a familiar technology, CRISPR-Cas9, a genome editing tool that holds a range of promise for the potatoes, strawberries and avocados the company raises and markets.
Simplot is already a leader in biotech for potatoes with its Innate varieties, which used biotechnology tools to bring potato genes from other plants into the final product. This makes them, technically, a GMO, and the company has a long-standing policy of labeling those products with QR (quick response) codes. This means consumers can get the back story on these enhanced potatoes that brown less — and when fried, produce less of a component that has been linked to cancer.
Doug Cole, marketing and biotech affairs, Simplot, talked with Farm Progress about the licensing deal, explaining the potential benefits: “With CRISPR, we can do pure knockouts to get rid of polyphenyloxidase, which creates browning in potatoes,” he says. “We can get those potatoes faster without the same level of regulatory approvals we needed with [biotech methods].”
That’s important. USDA issued a statement earlier this year that provided clarification on plants produced through innovative new breeding techniques including CRISPR-Cas9. Under those biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate, or have any plans to regulate, plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques — as long as they are not plant pests, or developed using plant pests.
“With CRISPR we can create a non-browning potato, which is a positive trait for the consumer, with late blight resistance, which is positive for the grower,” Cole says. “This is not a replacement for the Innate potato, it is a complement. This allows us to have multiple traits in the same potato for both the grower and the consumer.”
Consumers and food
In the announcement about the CRISPR license, Simplot quoted the Journal of Consumer Affairs, which noted that each year, 35% of fresh potatoes are lost because of waste from poor storage or shelf life. That loss is worth $1.7 billion annually. Avocados, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables have similar losses, and gene editing may reduce that significantly.
Cole noted that other crops Simplot raises could benefit in as little as five years from advances brought with the new CRISPR license. “We could see a non-browning avocado, or strawberries with a better shelf life,” he says.
For consumers, this would be more accepted, because nothing is added. With gene editing, plant breeders would be turning off a process or switching on a gene that helps with final quality or disease resistance. “That’s all in the same genome,” he says.
As for Innate? As Cole notes, that product will continue — and gene editing offers potential there, too. Someday Simplot could market Innate Plus (our term, not theirs), with specific traits in the potato edited for better performance.
The promise of these tools is in the faster-to-market nature of gene editing that allows breeders to bring out the best in a specific crop and leave behind the yield-robbing trait, or enhance the product for the consumer. You can learn about Innate potatoes at innatepotatoes.com. Learn more about gene editing at broadinstitute.org.