Imagine having the power of the ‘pen’ to write and edit the genetic composition of crops to improve their quality, composition, yield and environmental resilience?
That day has arrived with the advent of advanced gene editing which offers a more efficient and targeted way to improve plants than by traditional breeding alone.
Next Generation Gene Editing
Mother nature is the greatest ‘gene editor’ of all, re-arranging, re-writing, introducing, and eliminating genes in every generation of an organism’s lifecycle. Gene editing simply uses her wisdom and tool kit to make precise, directed changes instead of random alterations within a species genome. This produces an improved plant that does not include DNA from a different species.
From a societal perspective, we find ourselves at a critical inflection point for gene editing. Social acceptance of the technology is on the rise, regulatory policies are emerging and clarifying, and companies both large and small are using the technology in their product pipelines. All at a time when there’s a renewed and growing focus on the urgent need to climate-proof crops and feed a growing world population on less land.
Corteva and Gene Editing
Earlier this year, I was asked to lead our biotechnology team, a role that is charged with helping the company bring together our strong germplasm resources with our burgeoning seed biotechnology and gene-editing capabilities.
To be fully transparent, we are not exactly starting from scratch. For over 90 years, Corteva has used conventional breeding to develop unique germplasm with industry-leading performance. We’re combining that strong breeding acumen with this new precise technology inspired by Mother Nature to assist Mother Nature. It’s both exciting and humbling.
We have been taking steps toward this space for decades by gaining a better understanding genomic sequencing, precision phenotyping, and prediction technology. In fact, over the last 10 years, these advancements have increased the effective size of our breeding programs by ten-fold. By combining genetic, statistic, engineering, and analytic principles we have built a powerful breeding system that can be applied globally to all crops.
Indeed, gene editing essentially enables us to ‘write’ the winning ticket. This changes the game.
It’s akin to having a ‘pen’ to edit the 32,000 genes in the corn genome, which also prompts big questions, mostly around ‘where do we start?’ What are the biggest challenges facing crop production? Disease? Drought? Climate resilience? Yield? The possibilities of what we can now do with this new ‘pen’ are numerous.
Using the Biotech ‘Pen’ to Solve Major Challenges
The Biotech team is inspired by the possibilities. They are looking at every possible way to use the ‘pen”. Some are proposing quick solutions—fix this disease (re-write a page). Some are proposing bold, long, and heavy challenges—yield, drought, photosynthesis (re-writing the flow of the story). The ‘pen’ has the power to write tweets and epic sagas.
The Tweets are quick wins that bring value to previously difficult to solve problems, such as disease, crop lodging, and increasing oil content for renewable fuels. The epic sagas are those really difficult long-term intractable challenges—drought stress, yield stability, adaptation. We’re working on both.
But we don’t want to use the ‘pen’ to only solve the challenges facing developed country production agriculture. We know it can also be used to solve problems in developing countries, such as striga (a parasitic weed) in sorghum. The ‘pen’ can be used to eliminate rancidity in pearl millet and can also be used to eliminate aflatoxins in ground nuts. The ‘pen’ should not be restricted to writing the story of developed country agriculture when it can also write the story of agricultural challenges around the world. My team wants to not only use the ‘pen’ but to offer it to others who want to write their own tweets or epic sagas.
We know that in addition to farmer benefits, more productive seeds yield environmental and societal benefits as well. When seed products perform at higher levels, less arable land is needed to meet the rising food needs of a growing population. The gene editing ‘pen’, when used equitably on the most urgent and important challenges, has the potential to transform agriculture, food security, and sustainability.
Just as Corteva has handed my team the gene-editing ‘pen,’ I am also committing to pick up my own ‘electronic pen’, and share our journey, the successes, learnings, and the stories with you through these blogs. We are writing history, let’s talk about it as we go on this journey.
It’s an exciting time to be in this space and I applaud Corteva for making biotechnology and gene editing a must-win priority for our company and, more importantly, for our farmers and society.