Monsanto Co. is opening its next chapter in genetic technology — and may face tougher competition.
The St. Louis company is investing in gene editing in an effort to keep an edge over rival suppliers of high-tech crop seeds. Monsanto has signed a string of licensing deals to add new gene-editing capabilities to its established methods of genetically modifying seeds, or creating GMOs.
Dr. Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, said gene editing could help corn plants thrive in dry conditions, or produce tastier bell peppers. “It’s a breakthrough technology,” he said. “It’s going to create just a wave of innovation.”
But startups and established competitors like DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. are also working on gene-edited plants, which can advance through regulatory reviews faster than seeds developed with earlier biotechnology techniques.
Gene editing is different from the genetic modifications that Monsanto and other companies pioneered in the 1980s.
Gene editing allows scientists to make changes to a plant’s already-existing DNA with the same precision that word-processing programs can edit text, scientists say. In the crop-seed business, genetic modification up to this point mainly has involved inserting new genes from bacteria or another plant. That difference can mean a shorter review by U.S. regulatory agencies for gene-edited crops.
The latter technology is what created Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds — modified to resist herbicides — and turned the company over the past 20 years into the world’s largest seller of crop seeds. That GMO seed business last year spurred a $57 billion takeover offer from German chemical conglomerate Bayer AG, which the companies aim to close by the end of 2017.
But seed giants and Farm Belt upstarts view gene editing as the new front in genetic technology, potentially offering a cheaper and easier method of tweaking plants’ DNA.
Emerging technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 and Exzact allow scientists to change a plant’s performance without inserting genes from other species or bacteria. Gene editing can also help researchers insert new genes more precisely into plants’ DNA, hastening the development of biotech plants that can produce their own bug-killing proteins.
Over the past year, Monsanto has licensed two different Crispr versions, Crispr-Cas and Crispr-Cpf1, as well as the Exzact technology and another gene-editing platform developed by TargetGene Biotechnologies Ltd. The company has recruited medical and pharmaceutical researchers to explore the technologies’ potential to tweak the genes of corn, soybeans, cotton and vegetables in ways that will make farmers more profitable.
“We don’t think there’s a silver bullet in this,” said Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s chief executive. “We’ve tried to play across the emerging front of these technologies.”
Dr. Fraley said that in a decade the most advanced seeds could boast a dozen added genes alongside various genomic edits to resist disease, drought, bugs and weed-killing chemicals.
Monsanto’s seeds won’t be alone in the new bioengineered marketplace.
Bayer has set up its own joint venture centered on Crispr gene editing and plans to evaluate its potential to develop new crops. DuPont, Monsanto’s biggest rival in the U.S. seed business, has forged its own licenses for gene-editing technologies and plans to sell within four years a gene-edited variety of waxy corn, used to thicken food products and make adhesives. Dow, which is pursuing a merger with DuPont, joined with California-based Sangamo BioSciences to develop Exzact, a separate gene-editing technology.
Smaller firms pursuing the technology include Calyxt Inc., based in Minnesota, which is developing a strain of wheat that has been gene-edited to reduce gluten content, and a soybean that produces healthier vegetable oil. San Diego-based Cibus has developed a variety of canola resistant to certain herbicides.
Gene-edited crops can face looser regulation in the U.S. than crops that have been souped up with outside DNA. Winning world-wide regulatory approval for traditional biotech crops can take 13 years and cost $136 million, according to a 2011 study by research firm Phillips McDougall Ltd.
That opens the field to a wider range of competitors, said James Radtke, head of product development for Cibus. “As long as that continues, a company that’s got a smaller budget can actually be a player,” he said.
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