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Selective Breeding, Zinc Fingers and Mutagenesis as Alternatives to GMOs, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Alternatives to GM seeds include a selective breeding technique that introduces no foreign DNA such as that used in GM seeds.  The technology uses old-school practices in which plants with desirable characteristics such as longer shelf life or resistance to insects are crossbred to create new, hardier specimens.  The new twist to the old technique is the use of genetic markers, which make it much easier to isolate plants with a positive trait along with the gene that causes it.  Newly grown plants can also be quickly tested for the presence of the isolated gene.  The technology cuts traditional selective breeding time in half.
A number of companies are utilizing gene markers in their breeding programs.  Arcadia Biosciences ( developed seeds for wheat, under the brand GoodWheat, that can be eaten by people with the intestinal disorder called Celiac Disease, which affects 1% of Americans and 4% of Europeans.  Arcadia has also developed technologies that enable crops to utilize nitrogen (part of common fertilizers) more efficiently, thus reducing the amount of fertilizer needed overall.  It is working to develop plants that use water more efficiently, thus producing high crop yields in low water conditions.  It has even developed technology that enables plants to be irrigated with saltwater.
Genetic markers are not new, but the ability to use them in a cost-effective manner is relatively recent thanks to falling costs since the year 2000.  Where it once took several dollars to conduct each plant scan, the same test can now be conducted for pennies, making testing on a large scale possible.  Look for crop biotechnology companies including DuPont, Bayer Crop Science (formerly Monsanto) and Syngenta to invest heavily in selective breeding assisted by gene markers over the near- to mid-term.  Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta have been researching crop applications for technology called RNA interference that is used in the biopharmaceuticals industry.  Syngenta acquired Belgium-based Devgen, which has expertise in RNAi-based insect control for plants, in late 2012.  For example, insects eating plants grown with this technology would become sterile through genetic alteration.  Monsanto, before it became part of Bayer Crop Science in 2018, joined with Novozymes of Denmark to form the BioAg Alliance.  Its focus is to develop micro-organisms such as fungi and bacteria to strengthen and improve crops as an alternative to GM technology.
Another GM alternative is mutagenesis, the process of utilizing radiation to create a mutation within a plant.  It is a type of breeding intended to create new varieties of plants that have desired characteristics, such as resistance to herbicides, different flavors or different colors.  However, critics of mutagenesis are concerned that it may do more harm than GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).  The National Academy of Sciences reported that the process randomly rearranges and/or deletes enormous numbers of genes, which creates mutations that are less precise.
Yet another technology may radically impact the world’s food supply.  Food scientists at Sangamo Therapeutics ( have developed naturally occurring proteins that bind to DNA called zinc fingers.  The fingers (so named because of their shape) can be used to genetically modify cells in order to produce desired effects such as crop yield, taste or drought resistance in plants.  They afford very precise changes to DNA, which translates into better control when modifying plants and quicker development times compared to typical genetic modification.  Zinc fingers may also be far more acceptable to groups that are opposed to GM foods, because the elements of the zinc finger do not remain in a plant for more than a few days.  Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical that is focused on crop production) invested $20 million in Sangamo, hoping to compete with Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta’s agribio success.
Gene-editing refers to the process of snipping or splicing strands of DNA in order to improve crops, giving them qualities that may make them more nutritious or resistant to insects.  Other uses might make fruit or vegetables less likely to discolor or bruise.  Also referred to as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the technology focuses on the use of a DNA-cutting protein that is guided by an RNA molecule, targeted at a specific gene.  This technology enables a scientist to quickly and easily edit or re-engineer specific bits of DNA.  A defective gene can be precisely edited within the laboratory, and then reintroduced into seeds.  Government mandates to identify GM foods do not apply in gene-editing, as no foreign genes are used.  Companies active in the technology are Cellectis subsidiary Calyxt and DuPont Pioneer.
Calyxt, Inc., based in Roseville, Minnesota (, is a gene-editing company that focuses on the food industry.  It was testing its proprietary alfalfa seeds and plants, developed with the firm’s TALEN gene editing technology, in partnership with S&W Seed Company in early 2020.  The seeds and plants are the first alfalfa targeted mutations to be designated as a non-regulated article under the “Am I Regulated?” process by the Biotechnology Regulatory Services of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The improved quality alfalfa product was the first-ever alfalfa product to receive this non-regulated distinction from the USDA.  In addition, Calyxt is testing high fiber wheat and cold storable potatoes, as well as improvements for hemp, oats, canola, peanuts, peas and soybeans.

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