The Innovation of Innovation

Gene Editing is Changing the Plant Breeding Game

By Bill Stadick

As the process of innovation itself continues to innovate, the need to be nimble and stay aware has never been greater.

While the term, game-changer, is often overused, it’s hard to dispute the impact gene editing is already having on the plant breeding industry—and difficult to predict just how far-reaching its ultimate contributions will be to the soybean industry and all of agriculture.

Gene editing technology, which uses a scientific advancement known by the acronym, CRISPR, offers more than just the latest, most-talked-about advances in plant breeding. It also holds the promise of shortening the time between idea and market, allowing seed, ingredient and food companies to accelerate research and innovate on decentralized platforms. By presenting opportunities for plant breeding companies of all sizes, it could lead to wider seed trait selection and more producer options. 

Until recently, the cost and timeline of traditional trait development was a barrier for smaller companies and crop applications. “On average, it takes 15 years and $150 million to develop a GMO product,” Michael Lassner, chief science officer at biotech startup Amfora, says. “By streamlining the process, gene editing allows companies to bring innovations to bear on a greater number of crops and more problems.”
 
Curtis Wiltse, research manager at Beck’s Superior Hybrids, echoes this sentiment. “The rate of innovation today is so great, no one really knows what will happen in five years other than it’ll be exciting. There will be a lot of opportunities for growers who are willing to step out and do things a little differently. The best thing any of us can do is be nimble and stay aware,” he says.

Science That's Changing the Game

While it’s easy to get confused by complex concepts like Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, the basic concept behind this new science is as simple to understand as the term used to describe it: editing. 

Think of thiis sentence as a DNA sequence. To improve it, an editor would simply identify the unnecessary letter in the word, this, and remove it. 

Tools like CRISPR give gene editors a similar ability to quickly improve a living organism’s genetic code by identifying and editing the content found there. This technology has profound implications across a wide range of applications, from the treatment of human diseases to agricultural innovations. 

“When it comes to soybeans, it’s editing for things like healthier oils and disease resistance,” says Bernice Slutsky, senior vice president, domestic and international policy, American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). “The real value in this technology is it allows breeders to do many of the things they could maybe do in the past, but they’re now able to do it a lot less laboriously.”

Decentralizing the Platforms for Innovation

Compared to past technologies, the relative simplicity of working with CRISPR makes it easier for seed companies of any size to outsource all or part of their research and development needs. Companies like Benson Hill Biosystems are offering decentralized platforms to help make it happen. 

“What gets me excited is that we’re not just talking about enabling innovation for companies that have some form of it already in house, we’re also talking about bringing innovation to companies that don’t have that capability today,” says Matthew Crisp, CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems. “Our platform empowers companies anywhere along the food-agri value chain to leverage the natural genetic diversity within crops to develop both consumer and farmer-facing benefits.”

The company’s Crop OS Edit platform enables Benson Hill’s partners to leverage computational data analytics to identify specific sites that make the most sense to edit. It also includes the biological tools necessary to go inside the cell and precisely, predictably make only ideal edits.

“For soybeans, it might be identifying a high-yielding variety and simply tweaking the genes that already exist instead of spending 10 or 20 years on the introgression of various genes,” says Crisp. “In many ways, it’s just a version of accelerated breeding that’s enabled by tools like CRISPR; a tool that shows you exactly where to go and exactly what changes need to be made.”

Flipping the Carbohydrate-Protein Switch

Startup company Amfora is using gene editing technologies to significantly increase soybean protein content without yield drag concerns that often come with traditional breeding methods. The four-year-old company is developing a platform of technologies to meet the growing demand for high-protein foods while enhancing sustainability. 

“One of the genes we’re working on is a ‘switch’ that controls the partitioning between proteins and carbohydrates,” says Amfora’s Lassner, whose resume includes more than 30 years of work in the plant breeding field at both small companies and larger ones like Pioneer Hi-Bred International, where he helped lead their trait discovery work. 

“At Amfora, we are developing the ability to modulate this switch, turning it down or up as needed,” Lassner explains. “If it’s turned down, you get more carbohydrates and if it’s turned up, you get more protein. In the past, traditional breeding efforts to increase yields tended to bring protein content down. Gene editing addresses this.”

By the early 2020s, Amfora hopes to bring two applications of this edited switch to market: a broadly licensed offering that would help any seed company increase protein content by approximately 10 percent, and an aquaculture product that could displace fish meal and other expensive feed alternatives with an ultra-high-protein soybean meal alternative.

Need for Dialogue

Obviously, any new technology—especially one that accelerates the research and development process as gene editing does—comes with an associated need to ensure everyone, including government regulators and consumers, fully understands its purpose and promise.   

Slutsky underscores the need for groups like ASTA to be disciplined in their approach. “Plant breeding innovation is a key focus area at ASTA,” she says. “Over the past few years, it became clear gene editing would be extremely helpful to breeders of all kinds of crops, from small startups to the very largest organizations to university breeders. To address this, we’ve focused our energies on three bucket areas: policy, stakeholder engagement and communication.” 

On the policy front, ASTA strives to promote science-based oversight and international harmonization that ensures safety without creating barriers to entry for smaller companies and crop applications.  

To address the need for engaging stakeholders and communicating clearly, ASTA recently partnered with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) in a joint venture called Innovature, which will “explore and contextualize gene editing advancements and promote dialogue and clarity on agriculture innovation under development.”

“Innovature and its microsite, Innovature.com, are really a platform for dialogue,” says Bethany Shively, vice president, strategic communications at ASTA. “Since we want this to be a discussion, we’re bringing in outside voices and a wide variety of views. We know that consumers want to know about their food, and they should. We’re also continuing to work to put a face on plant breeding, and the critical real-life benefits it provides for all of us.”