THE MICE BECOME MIGHTIER
NEW TRAITS ARE BEGINNING TO FLOW FROM OTHER COMPANIES—NOT JUST THE BIG SIX. SMALL AND MID-SIZE TRAIT DEVELOPERS ARE FORGING PARTNERSHIPS WITH ALL THE BIG SEED COMPANIES, AND IT IS CHANGING THE FACE OF THE INDUSTRY.
Entirely new dimensions are being added to the face of agriculture in the United States and the world via the rapidly expanding trait development industry. No longer is this a business monopolized by the ‘big boys’ of the seed sector.
The world’s largest biotech companies, including Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, BASF, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta are all paying attention, in fact often partnering with the increasing number of small and mid-size trait developers to advance their own breeding programs.
Breaking Into Non-GM Markets
Cibus Global, with research facilities based in San Diego, Calif. is only 10 years in the trait business but is now rapidly ramping up as several seed companies are courting it. “Thanks to our targeted mutagenesis technologies, we are partnering with large companies, mid-size companies, even ‘farmer groups’ to develop specific traits of interest to each of these various partners,” says Dave Voss, vice president of commercial development.
Cibus technology essentially carefully characterizes the bit of DNA controlling a particular function but instead of implanting, as has been the tradition with biotechnology, this company merely exposes the host’s DNA to a specifically designed short synthesized molecule (known as a gene repair oligonucleotide). This tricks the cell into thinking it’s found a mutation. To repair itself, the cell alters its own DNA, thereby incorporating the additional trait. The cell then digests and expels the GRON molecules. Cibus refers to this as their Rapid Trait Development System.
From start to finish, mutagenesis can lead to a new commercially ready product in six to seven years, about three years faster than a genetically modified crop timeline, says Voss. Much of the saving is due to faster regulatory approval for RTDS technology. The company says it is also much more affordable—GM technology can cost $50 million to bring a trait to market, whereas RTDS costs about $7 million.
Is it working? Voss says his firm currently has nine partners around the world geared to trait development. Cibus just finished a project with BASF, which requested a particular trait in canola. “We did the project in a relatively short period of time and they are already taking that trait to market,” says Voss, who expects this particular mutagenic product to work its way into U.S. markets. “With our nine partners we are actually working in nine different crops,” he says.
Cibus apparently fits a unique role in trait development because of its non-GMO, non-transgenic technology by discovering how to harness a natural mechanism within the plant to make its own natural mutation. And because there is no foreign DNA going into the plant, this mutagenesis technology is widely accepted around the world. “Potentially this ‘new’ approach to trait development could eliminate the barriers currently imposed on GM crops,” says Voss.
According to Voss, the European 2001 Directive on GMO regulations specifically spells out that mutagenesis technologies are exempt. Because Cibus’-altered plants don’t carry genes from other species, they’re not subject to bans on GM crops or special labelling requirements.
Almost two years ago, Cibus announced a working agreement with Israeli-based Makhteshim-Agan for multiple trait development in five different crops grown in Europe. Last spring, the Flax Council of Canada announced a $6 million deal with Cibus to develop herbicide-tolerant flax seed. Canada exports 70 percent of the crop to Europe, which doesn’t allow genetically modified organisms into food.
Cibus has doubled its staff over the past two years, reports Voss, and also expanded into its third lab facility in San Diego. It just moved into a new, state-of-the art, platinum LEED-certified laboratory and now employs 60 people, with the majority doing research in trait technology projects.
Two Are Stronger Than One
The same business flurry exists with Arcadia Biosciences in Davis, Calif. “We’ve done agreements with very large seed companies, second-tier companies and several smaller seed companies,” says Eric Rey, president and chief executive officer. “To date we have between 65 and 70 individual licensing agreements encompassing 12 different crops—virtually in every geography around the world.”
Arcadia Biosciences is seven years into the business and positions itself as being “crop neutral” in the complex science of trait development but obviously relates to the position of various crops in world agriculture.
“Our approach is to first validate any particular trait into one monocot or one dicot crop with multiple years, multiple field trials. Then we license the technology to various seed companies for a variety of crops.· For us field trials, rather than greenhouse trials, are the deciding factor,” says Rey. A strong data package demonstrating the efficacy of the trait is paramount to the licensing agreements of Arcadia.
Another trait development company, Evogene, started in 2002 and headquartered in Rehovot, Israel, is also collaborating with world-leading seed companies to introduce its technology into key commercial crops. The company’s technology platform is based on a unique computational core technology for gene discovery called the ‘ATHLETE’ (Agro Traits Harvest Leads Technology) that enables the rapid discovery of genes and molecular markers to improve high-commercial value plant traits.
Evogene currently lists Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Bayer, Syngenta and Limagrain as working partners for introducing its technology into the commercial crop world. The firm has discovered and patented more than 1,000 genes covering various high-value traits including yield, stress tolerance such as drought, salinity and heat, and fertilizer utilization. Evogene derives its income from licensing fees, research payments and royalties on improved seed sold.
In 2008 Evogene signed a five-year collaboration with Monsanto to improve yield and drought tolerance in corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. Evogene is to receive research payments of approximately $35 million over this five-year period. In addition, Monsanto purchased an $18 million equity stake in Evogene and is obligated to purchase an additional $12 million equity stake in the future.
This collaboration provides Monsanto access to new genes thus strengthening its entire gene discovery program. Monsanto evaluates the licensed genes in its research pipeline. Products from this joint development will be commercialized by Monsanto through its branded and licensed businesses.
Martin Gerstel, chairman of Evogene, says that, “Having the world’s leading agriculture company as a major collaborator moving forward is clearly a transforming event in the history of our company.”
Meanwhile, this past September Dow AgroSciences announced a long-term research and product development agreement with KWS SAAT AG, a world market leader in sugar beet seed. This agreement focuses on the use of EXZACT Precision Technology for targeted plant genome modifications, which deliver efficient and robust means for precise genome engineering and gene stacking.
“This agreement is an example of how Dow AgroSciences is delivering on its growth strategy through technological innovation and collaboration,” says Kay Kuenker, Dow AgroSciences vice president of new business. “This agreement also lays the foundation for a long-term research relationship in which we can work together to use EXZACT in numerous crops of mutual interest.”
Responding to Growers’ Needs
Indeed there are a lot of investments being made by companies, big and small, in developing new technologies for agriculture, but how will these partnerships change the seed industry and agriculture in general?
“They all represent a set of tools which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t work for the individual farmer. But the core reason for our existence, and that of most trait development companies, is to provide a product that adds value to the production efforts of farmers,” says Rey. “Yes, in a way it complicates farmers’ decisions because we provide more and more choices. But farmers are sharp, smart people. They are becoming more management intensive and they understand these various choices give them opportunity for better returns in their crop production endeavours.”
However the question persists, ‘Can too many traits get pushed into the marketplace because farmers now appear to accept these new technologies simply as the added cost of doing business?’ The competition is already fierce, so how far can that go?
Trait development companies around the world are not worried as they feel there are plenty of growers’ needs to cater to. “The ultimate driver in the marketplace is the farmer,” says Rey, adding, “I know quite a few farmers. They’re often willing to try something new once, maybe even twice. But on that third go-around if it is not showing some utility value, they’re done with that particular item.”
The marketplace for agricultural traits is really a reflection of what the farmer wants. Admittedly these “wants” sometimes need to be identified via education and promotion efforts of the various seed companies. But more often the very ambition of wanting to be a successful farmer shapes their vision. They are always looking ahead. And that explains the tremendous interest already brewing in the farming community about the commercial development of two new traits: drought tolerance and better nitrogen utilization.
Rey says both of these developments are “very close to real world realities.” He predicts plant varieties touting better nitrogen efficiencies will be the first release by Arcadia’s partner seed companies. Arcadia is doing field trials with this particular trait on six different crops with some already through multiple seasons of trials.
“We’re excited and think it’s one of the more important new developments in the entire trait pipeline,” says Rey. “It would bring a fundamental change to the net energy values of crop production, the environmental impact of crop production and also the cost of doing business in agriculture. We’re fundamentally changing the nitrogen equation, kind of like designing cars that get better gas mileage.”
Close behind is his firm’s trait work to improve water efficiency of various plants. This is different than drought tolerance because these plants simply get by with less water throughout their entire growth. “A corn farmer can be looking at a beautiful field that doesn’t show any moisture stress, but very likely even in that ‘perfect’ field during certain times of the day there are transient stresses,” explains Rey. “These are invisible to the naked eye but have the effect of robbing little bits of yield each time this transient stress happens during a growing season.”
At Arcadia, Rey and his team of scientists are excited because even with “normal conditions” their research is showing that these plants just do better because every drop of moisture becomes more functional.
With a projected world population of nine billion people by 2050, the future of biotechnology shines brightly. Rey puts it in a very understandable perspective when he notes that today there are approximately one billion undernourished people in the world. Of that number, roughly 300 million are children.
“I think biotechnology offers great tools to farmers that will allow them to increase efficiency and crop yields, and one of the consequences of this will be that global agriculture produces more food without consumers needing to pay more. We need to make more food and need to make it available to people in a cost-effective way—that’s the challenge,” says Rey. “I think this clearly is a morality issue. If there is some other way to increase food production for more people, I’m listening. However, I don’t see food production increasing any other way than with technologies, genetics, and better farming practices that simply keep increasing yield.” Dick Hagen