Gene editing in agriculture & food: Accelerating the second green revolution

Chris Sworder

Why are we talking about this?

Pressure on global resources to support our food system is growing, and even outpacing ability to meet demand. Genetic engineering is a useful tool to maximize yield in an increasingly resource-stressed world.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a step change for agritech, it allows plant breeders to implement the vast wealth of knowledge accumulated in the last hundred years into a wider range of crop plants. It has and will continue to accelerate crop science research into the second green revolution.”

William Pelton, CEO, Phytoform Labs

What’s happening with investment?

Investment in genomic-related companies has grown significantly over the past two years, with 2017 showing a high deal volume despite posting a lower dollar amount than 2016. CRISPR was first used in around 2012 or 2013 (there is some contention over the timing of the discovery of this gene editing method), and the recent increase in deal volume correlates with this latest advance in genetic engineering entering the commercial sphere.

What are the Ag Giants doing?

We can see Monsanto making an early investment in Synthetic Genomics, a fairly multi-purpose CRISPR developer, and more recently announcing a partnership with ToolGen, as they seem to be building a suite of CRISPR tools through open innovation to compliment in-house R&D.

 

CRISPR Therapeutics and its joint venture with Bayer have struck a deal with CureVac. The pact tasks CureVac with developing Cas9 mRNA constructs for use by CRISPR and joint venture Casebia Therapeutics in three in vivo gene-editing liver disease programs.

 

 

DowDuPont – the world’s largest chemical company recently merged from Dow and DuPont – is now the single biggest owner of CRISPR patents and applications globally with 514, or 12% of the total. DowDuPont has emerged as the leader in this field.

 

DuPont Pioneer separately partnered with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to jointly provide non-exclusive licenses to foundational CRISPR-Cas9 intellectual property. The company had previously licensed IP from Caribou Biosciences, ERS Genomics, and Vilnius University.

 

In November last year, Syngenta announced that it has obtained a non-exclusive license from the Broad Institute to intellectual property covering the genome-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 for agricultural applications.

Regulation

With this topic’s proximity to the GMO debate, and with any new technology that may have an impact on the plants we grow and the food we eat, it is important to check in with where the regulators see gene editing, and whether there are any red flags on the horizon for the continued development of CRISPR in Agriculture & Food.

In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for regulating food and agricultural products, has made it clear that it sees its jurisdiction as a regulator of products, not technologies. The FDA has already decided not to attach special regulations to a number of products that have been edited using CRISPR-Cas9, the most publicised being a mushroom product. For more information on the regulators thinking, a longer explanation is available here.

After headlines such as ‘Gene editing in legal limbo in Europe’ in Nature last February, the EU has taken steps to clarify its position. In the EU, an opinion from the ECJ recently stated that ‘Crops and drugs created using powerful gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR–Cas9 might not need to be regulated by the strict European Union rules that govern genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to a formal opinion from an advocate general in the European Court of Justice.’

What next?

Innovation in the business model for CRISPR developers is coming fast. We have already seen a typical ‘platforming’ model arise both in the form of industry-agnostic CRISPR developers (such as Caribou Biosciences) and agricultural platforms that incorporate CRISPR-based gene editing capabilities (such as Benson Hill Biosystems). One of the more intriguing recent developments concerns a company called Inscripta, who have said that they will not be charging royalties on the use of their proprietary nucleases, in the hope that their product embeds itself as an industry standard.

We will continue to track developments in genetic engineering and their potential impact on cleantech industries. For example, keep an eye out for the increasing importance of two fascinating technologies we are looking into – Epigenetics and Xenotransplantation. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in the gene expression. These can occur naturally, or in a forced way, for example epigenetics determines whether a cell becomes a skin/liver/brain cell. Essentially this is method of genetic mutation without changing the underlying DNA. You can turn genes on and off to get required characteristics. Xenotransplantation is the process of growing organs and tissue in animals that can be used as replacements in humans. The impacts of both of these are worthy of exploration.