Technology Drives Seed Solutions
Featured in the September issue of our magazine.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF SEED
Technology equips plant breeders with tools to meet global needs with local solutions
New technology can rapidly bring solutions to life.
Consider what plant breeders can do with the new technology
increasingly filtering into their labs. Soybeans with four-bean
pods, nitrogen-efficient crops, and protein and oil characteristics
tailored to specific end uses are no longer pipedreams, they are
Plant breeders have been working on challenges like these
for decades. Like any genome, soybeans display great genetic
diversity, with 20 chromosomes and more than 1.1 billion DNA
pairs making up its genes. The gamechanger is now all of the
characteristics mentioned above that occur naturally within that
diversity can be found and manipulated much more quickly.
“Gene editing uses plants’ own genetic material to make
selections and drive change,” explains Kevin Diehl, Ph.D., global
seed regulatory platform director for Corteva Agriscience.
A very precise plant breeding technique, gene editing may
hold the key to harnessing genetic diversity to improve soybean
production, processing and end products. It is the newest tool
in a long history of breeding advancements.
While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) introduce genes from other species,
gene editing inserts genes from within the species.
“The power and diversity that exists within a plant’s own genome
offers a lot of opportunities to create new and better products to
help address big challenges that exist today,” Diehl says. “We can
take advantage of naturally occurring pest and disease resistance,
or adaptability to climate change and geography.”
Diehl describes gene editing as a tool to solve problems, not a
technology in search of an application. The solutions-centered
strategy pulls technology into a product and may appeal more to
consumers. “Gene editing could lower gluten content in wheat,” he
says. “It could protect the cocoa plant from new disease challenges
as in marginal environments. It could quickly address disease
issues in bananas, which come predominantly from one plant.”
Gene editing does what traditional breeding crosses would
eventually accomplish, but with more accuracy. It allows recovery
of genetic diversity lost to domestication and traditional breeding.
Mark Stowers, senior vice president of operations and
products at Inari, a plant breeding start-up based in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, believes gene editing is a valuable tool to help
farmers have sustainable business and be good stewards of
“Gene editing should have virtually no unintended consequences
because of the precision of the technology,” Stowers says. “We
estimate that it cuts breeding time by roughly two-thirds, and
production costs by up to 90 percent.”
He sees challenges for the technology use in plants because
he says knowledge of plant biochemistry lags knowledge of
people and animals. But he is optimistic about progress in tools.
Researchers currently choose among meganculease, zinc finger
nuclease, transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN)
and Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats
(CRISPR) as tools to deliver gene edits.
“They all have different strengths and weaknesses, but we hear the
most about CRISPR because it is currently the most cost-effective
and efficient tool available,” Stowers says. Jennifer Doudna, one of the
creators of CRISPR is on Inar’s Scientific Advisory Board.
He expects ongoing improvements for nucleases available for
gene editing. “For example, I anticipate plant-optimized tools that
work best at lower internal temperature of plants,” he says. “I also
think we will improve efficiency and develop the ability to edit
multiple genes at once.”
How will this help create better soybeans?
“In soybeans, gene editing will allow us to solve problems like
iron deficiency chlorosis,” he says. “It’s difficult to address with
Stowers predicts the technology will benefit soy customers,
developing high-value soy protein isolates and concentrates and
healthier oils that replace trans fats. However, he notes gene
editing may not address resistance to complex pests like soybean
cyst nematode and Asian soybean rust.
GLOBAL REGULATORY PERSPECTIVES
Although many researchers highlight the differences between
transgenic GMOs, which move genes across species; and gene
editing, mutagenesis that changes genes within a species;
interpretations vary when it comes to regulation.
Argentina was among the first to address gene editing regulation.
It embraced the technology, developing case-by-case assessments
for gene-edited products, and Brazil followed suit.
The U.S. government focuses on regulating products, rather than
the processes used to create them. Plant biotechnology is primarily
regulated by USDA, based on products’ plant-pest risk.
“A number of products that have been developed using gene
editing technologies have gone through USDA’s Am I Regulated
process,” says regulatory lawyer Karen Carr, partner at Arent Fox.
“The agency clarified that such products created without using
plant pests or that are not themselves plant pests, will not be subject
to regulation premarket under USDA’s biotech regulations.”
In contrast, the European Union (EU) Court of Justice ruled in
late July that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, which includes
gene editing, will be regulated as GMOs.
“This ruling appears to bring genome editing into the EU’s GMO
regulatory framework, which has never been efficiently
implemented,” says Beat Späth, director for agricultural
biotechnology at EuropaBio. “The EU has essentially expelled
GM crop innovation, and now runs the risk of locking out the
benefits of genome editing from Europe. And there is little
chance for a shift in the ruling, since this ruling cannot be
Späth cites potential innovations like nutrient-enriched crops
that tackle malnutrition, stress-resilient crops that cope with
climate change, and conversion of waste into feedstocks to
decrease dependence on fossil carbon and develop a sustainable
bioeconomy as reasons the EU should embrace gene editing.
“Supporters of this ruling, mostly a small group of often
radical multinational environmental non-governmental
organizations and some politicians closely associated with
them, focus on market power of companies, completely
overlooking the many benefits,” he says. “But GMOs and geneedited
products can and do provide numerous benefits to
society, consumers and farmers.”
How the differences in gene editing regulations could impact
the quest for better soybeans and the global market has yet to
be resolved. Researchers hope to see decisions based in science.
Stowers says, “Regardless of process, biology is still biology,
and breeding is still breeding.”