Q. How does gene editing benefit me and my family?
A: The traits and characteristics that plant breeders are developing benefit all of us. For consumers, plants can be developed that have higher nutritional content. Other traits can result in a better eating experience (such as oranges that are easier to peel) and lower food waste (such as apples that don’t turn brown when exposed to air). For farmers and growers, anything that increases their crop’s yield per acre or reduces the amount of fertilizer of pest control products that need to be applied in their fields lowers the price of food for all of us. Plants that are resistant to disease mean better crop yields and a more profitable operation for the farmer and his or her family. Plants that resist insects, pests and fungi mean a much lower use of pesticides and fungicides, which not only reduces costs for the farmer, but is better for soil health and water quality.
Q. What are the advantages of gene editing techniques over conventional plant breeding — in other words, why use it?
A: Conventional plant breeding is much more time consuming because we have to grow several generations of offspring plants to get the consistency and stability of the new trait or characteristic we are trying to breed into the plant. With gene editing tools, we can make a very precise change in the DNA of the plant, adapting or silencing the functioning of the plant’s own genes. Conventional plant breeding can take a decade or more; gene editing of plants can take 3 to 5 years and with much greater precision. Gene editing is only one step in the plant breeding process; other steps involve understanding the biology and genetic make-up of the plant as a start, and then at the end thorough testing of the resulting crop in the field to make sure it performs as it was intended, but this one step of breeding is accelerated using gene editing, resulting overall in less time and more focus in the breeding process.
Q. How do new breeding tools, such as gene editing, benefit smaller technology developers?
A: Use of new breeding tools like gene editing can provide benefits, such as development of crops that are more productive and sustainable, to farmers and broader society as well as smaller technology developers. History has shown that since the 1960’s, when modern breeding tools became more prevalent, many different sizes and types of breeding organizations have benefited from the use of these technologies. Over time, only large corporations have possessed the financial and operational structures to maintain investments in biotechnology due to the high regulatory and compliance costs. With gene editing on the other hand, and the potential for implementation of a science-based and proportionate regulatory framework, regulatory and compliance costs do not have to be a barrier for smaller and/or public organizations to use new breeding tools. There are also many types of gene editing tools besides CRISPR, and some of these have even been developed by individuals or entities associated with public universities. In addition, Corteva has an Open Innovation program, where we actively search for partnership and licensing opportunities related to Corteva’s enabling technology platforms, including gene editing, to support research and advancement in many agricultural areas. See www.openinnovation.corteva.com for more information.
Q. Is gene editing used to develop a new form of “GMOs”?
A: Based on the most common definition of a GMO, a gene edited plant which does not contain DNA from a different species is not a GMO. If you consider the term GMO in a broader context, in other words in how we as humans have adapted plants to provide for food, feed and fiber for humankind over the centuries, then the latest gene editing technologies are one more step in the long line of breeding technologies used to develop better and more beneficial plant varieties. We are learning more and more about how biology and a plant’s own DNA can be employed to identify solutions to farming challenges, such as increased yield while decreasing environmental impact. This in the end is the goal, not the technology or breeding method itself.
Q. Can the tools used for gene editing be used to develop GMO’s as commonly defined?
A: Yes. The genetic tools used to develop a gene edited plant can also be used to insert a specific gene at a precise spot in the plant to develop a GMO, or a plant that contains a gene sequence from another species. When we are developing gene edited plants (we call this ‘Advanced Plant Breeding’) we are not introducing DNA from a different species into the final plant product (which by common definition would be called a GMO). With gene editing, we make precise modifications in the genome of the plant, such as adapting or silencing the functioning of the plant’s own genes. So while the genetic tools used for gene editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to develop what are commonly called GMO’s, we develop new plant varieties based on what approach is best for the farming challenge and consumer needs, and in all cases, we are transparent about the breeding method used to create a specific plant variety.
Q. What are the most desirable traits or characteristics to breed into a plant?
A: It depends on the crop, but in general plant breeders are seeking to make a specific pre-determined change that benefits farmers and consumers. These include developing plants with higher levels of nutrients, improved drought tolerance and disease resistance, and improved ability to ward off destructive pests.
Q. How do you evaluate the potential for off-target impacts or unintended consequences as a result of the targeted use of gene editing?
A: Breeding by definition is intended to create variation. Selections are then made from this variation to identify the best plants for cultivation. This variation can come via several means, the ‘traditional’ one being crossing two plants and then selecting from their offspring. A newer method can now be used, since we know so much about the genetics of many plants and we know what many genes do (for instance which genes or combination of genes drive disease resistance, higher yield, drought tolerance etc.) by targeting genetic changes with gene editing. Use of gene editing results in targeted changes in genetic sequences, typically far less then the amount of variation that can occur using conventional breeding techniques.
Gene editing allows us to introduce the desired change into the plant in a targeted manner, so that the desired characteristic can be achieved without impacting other features of the plant. A nice analogy is using a car; if you want to upgrade your old car with modern safety features, let’s say a GPS system; you don’t want to mix-up all the parts of both cars in a big pile, and then select random individual parts until you have the car you want with the GPS, but you rather would in a targeted way add a specific GPS system to the modern car. This is a much more efficient and effective way to build a car, and also applies to plants.
Q. Do patents impact use of new breeding technologies?
A: Patents have existed in the US since the late 1700’s, and began to be applied to plant inventions in the 1980’s. Several conditions apply prior to the granting of a patent. For example, an invention must be new (i.e., novel), non-obvious and useful. In addition, in exchange for the exclusivity granted by the patent rights, a patent describes and enables others to build on and use the invention. Patent rights provide time-limited protection to the invention, which incentivizes innovators to invest their time and resources.
Patents in CRISPR-based gene editing have been obtained by several academic institutions (e.g., UC Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Vilnius University, University of Vienna) and corporations. The associated technologies have been licensed to various companies and institutions to develop products. Corteva has obtained several licenses for CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing applications. We have an active licensing program in place to enable wide access to these CRISPR-Cas9 technologies and intellectual property rights. Licenses for academic and non-commercial research purposes are provided free of charge. In recognition of the value obtained from the use of the technology, licenses for commercial purposes carry appropriate financial license requirements. In our view, intellectual property rights protect research investments, and as such drive new investments and the creation of value. This is how the breeding industry has improved crop yields and performance, all while reducing the reliance on inputs, over the last 90 years.
Q. How does the safety of gene edited crops compare to those developed using conventional breeding?
A: Plant breeding has a long history of safety, with the food and ag varieties developed over the last 90 plus years having an excellent track record. New varieties developed using newer technologies, including gene edited products that we are developing via “Advanced Plant Breeding” are comparable to those that can be developed through conventional/traditional plant breeding. Plant breeding is often said to be more a process of elimination rather than selection. Any plants showing undesirable characteristics such as for example significant differences in nutrient content, detrimental responses to environmental stresses, diseases, or the presence of other undesirable traits can be discarded as soon as they are identified. Prior to commercializing any product, plant breeders typically evaluate thousands of plants, grown under a variety of environmental conditions, locations, and over multiple years to accurately measure the product quality farmers expect in their fields and consumers expect to see in the grocery store. While USDA, EPA and the FDA maintain regulatory oversight over all agricultural products developed for use in the field and for the food supply (in the USA, in other countries there are equivalent regulatory bodies), our company philosophy is also to provide transparency on the breeding methods used to develop our products, via this website but also via other communication efforts.