KANSAS CITY – Gene-editing technology could transform the food and agriculture industry by increasing yields, reducing chemical use and greenhouse gas emissions, including in commodity crops such as wheat, soybeans and canola, said Rory, chief executive officer of Cibus Global. Riggs. Ltd. This can lead to the creation of more ingredients that fit into food companies’ sustainability plans and goals.
“It’s almost an analog-to-digital moment,” Mr. Riggs said, calling plant gene editing “a new breeding industry.”
Gene editing, which involves techniques such as CRISPR-Cas, is not the same as genetic modification, where a new gene is inserted into a plant, Mr. Riggs said.
“If your traits are indistinguishable from what might happen in nature, that’s what we want,” he said. “We want people to be able to come in and make changes to the plants. We trick the cell’s own system into making the change we want. So the changes we make are no different from what happens in nature. We never integrate any foreign material into our process. It’s a really big breakthrough.”
Cibus has developed a proprietary technology Rapid Trait Development System, or RTDS, that combines crop-specific cell biology platforms with a variety of gene editing technologies to enable a crop-specific precision breeding system.
RTDS’s Trait Machine can reduce the time needed to develop plants that provide renewable ingredients, including replacing fossil fuels in reagents and alternatives to palm or palm kernel oil. According to Cibus, which has offices in San Diego, New York, and Breda, Netherlands, RTDS addresses agricultural sustainability by increasing yields and reducing inputs such as fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.
“The idea behind this new gene editing technology is that traits can evolve faster than conventional breeding,” Mr Riggs said. “I’m not sure you’re going to solve many of these diseases with conventional breeding.”
One trait provides tolerance to white mold (Sclerotinia), a fungal pathogen that affects 14% to 30% of annual canola oil/seeds. Cibus will also affect other crops.
“Wheat rust is something everyone wants to deal with,” Mr Riggs said.
Cibus uses CRISPR-Cas and other gene editing tools.
“We use it as a cutter,” Mr. Riggs said. “In the grand scheme of things, CRISPRs are not editing. They cut it. CRISPR is not a (gene editing) technology. CRISPR is simply a tool that allows gene-editing technology to be more efficient.”
Other gene editing work is being done in cocoa, corn and rice.
Reduction of cadmium in cocoa
Gene editing in cacao can reduce the amount of cadmium, a heavy metal that causes health problems when consumed at certain levels, from the trees. Scientists are investigating how biotechnology can help reduce cadmium levels in soil cultivated by Colombian cocoa farmers. The researchers receive funding from Cacao for Peace, a program of the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service and funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Cacao for Peace supports rural economic development through cocoa research, development, innovation and market access.
Scientists use genome editing to make changes in the cacao gene responsible for absorbing cadmium from the soil. Genome-edited plants will absorb less cadmium, resulting in lower cadmium levels in chocolate.
Scientists from the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a USDA project partner in Colombia, have developed nine genome-edited cacao lines. They are testing a genome-edited cacao root to reduce cadmium absorption. Projects include transplanting genome-edited cacao plants from greenhouses into soil brought from the cacao-growing regions of Colombia, a country with more than 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of land suitable for growing cacao.
Saving corn and rice
Corteva Agriscience, Indianapolis, has developed gene-editing technology that adds protection to corn hybrids moving forward in the company’s research and development pipeline. Proprietary technology packages multiple disease-resistant native lines into a single gene location to combat North American corn diseases. Northern leaf blight, southern rust, gray leaf spot and anthrax stem rot combined cost North American corn growers more than 318 million bushels of production in 2021, according to Korteva.
“The National Corn Growers Association supports farmers in accessing innovations, including gene-editing innovations, that improve corn yield and quality and reduce threats from pests and environmental stressors,” said the National Corn Growers Association.
The cropping approach could be scaled up to other crops, according to Korteva.
A review of gene editing techniques suggests that the CRISPR-Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats/Cas) method may benefit rice crops threatened by climate change. The study was published March 3 in CABI Reviews. Researchers at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil have found that the CRISPR-Cas tool is effective in editing genes related to yield, tolerance to biotic stresses and abiotic stresses, and grain quality in rice.
The study predicted a 50 percent increase in rice consumption by 2050, which would translate to a demand of up to 1.125 billion tons. Biotic stresses such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, pests and weeds as well as abiotic stresses such as drought, submergence, salinity, heat, cold and heavy metals limit rice production.
“The high potential of CRISPR-Cas9 editing, for example, has facilitated the development of broad-spectrum resistance against bacteria, fungi and viruses by silencing susceptibility genes and introducing resistance genes,” said Antonio Costa de Oliveira, Ph.D. author of the study. “In this regard, CRISPR-Cas9-mediated genome editing enabled the introduction of mutations in three promoters of the SWEET gene, which resulted in rice lines with broad-spectrum resistance to Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae (Xoo)’.