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From Calyxt to Cibus, gene-editing start-ups ignite new frankenfood fight

Gene-editing could mean bigger harvests of crops with a wide array of desirable traits - better-tasting tomatoes, low-gluten wheat


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In a suburban Minneapolis laboratory, a tiny company that has never turned a profit is poised to beat the world's biggest agriculture firms to market with the next potential breakthrough in genetic engineering — a crop with “edited” DNA.

Inc, an eight-year-old firm co-founded by a genetics professor, altered the genes of a soybean plant to produce healthier oil using the cutting-edge editing technique rather than conventional genetic modification. Seventy-eight farmers planted those soybeans this spring across 17,000 acres in South Dakota and Minnesota, a crop expected to be the first gene-edited crop to sell commercially, beating out Fortune 500 companies.

Seed development giants such as Monsanto, and DowDuPont have dominated genetically that emerged in the 1990s. But they face a wider field of competition from start-ups and other smaller competitors because gene-edited crops have drastically lower development costs and the (USDA) has decided not to regulate them.

Relatively unknown firms including Calyxt, Cibus, and Benson Hill Biosystems are already advancing their own gene-edited projects in a race against Big Ag for dominance of the potentially transformational technology.

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“It’s a very exciting time for such a young company,” said CEO Federico Tripodi, who oversees 45 people. “The fact a company so small and nimble can accomplish those things has picked up interest in the industry.” technology involves targeting specific genes in a single organism and disrupting those linked to undesirable characteristics or altering them to make a positive change.

Traditional genetic modification, by contrast, involves transferring a gene from one kind of organism to another, a process that still does not have full consumer acceptance.

could mean bigger harvests of crops with a wide array of desirable traits — better-tasting tomatoes, low-gluten wheat, apples that don't turn brown, drought-resistant soybeans or potatoes better suited for cold storage. The advances could also double the $15 billion global biotechnology seed market within a decade, said analyst Nick Anderson of investment bank Berenberg.

The has fielded 23 inquiries about whether gene-edited crops need regulation and decided that none meet its criteria for oversight. That saves their developers years of time and untold amounts of money compared to traditional genetically modified crops.

First Published: Fri, August 10 2018. 23:51 IST