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Researchers use new gene-editing technology to ‘make better crops faster’

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Monsanto has entered a global licensing agreement to use new gene-editing technology.

Farmers could see more new varieties of crops sooner as more researchers use the latest gene-editing technology, a top executive at Monsanto says.

The company has entered into an agreement with the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to use so-called CRISPR Cpf1 technology, which allows researchers to edit genomes at precise locations, according to an institute press release.

Using the technology, researchers can edit traits in corn, soybeans and other crops and ultimately develop new varieties years sooner than by using traditional breeding techniques, Monsanto vice president of biotechnology Tom Adams said.

A version of the technology has already been widely adopted by researchers, including those at Washington State University and at Monsanto. The new agreement is for updated technology that is simpler to use and more precise, according to the institute.

Adams said the company’s researchers will use the technology to accelerate corn and soybean seed development.

He expects a crop developed using the technology to be available sometime in the next two decades.

“We could take one great (gene) from one wheat variety and move it in to replace one that’s not so good in another wheat variety, rather than having to go through all the years of breeding it might take to do that cleanly,” Adams said.

The technology brings more precision to both breeding and genetic modification to “make better crops faster,” Adams said.

“Maybe 10 years from now, a breeder sits at a computer, picks out the versions of the different genes available in wheat, designs the genome they’d like, and then we make it,” he said. “Rather than sorting through a million progeny to find the one that’s closest to what we want, we actually make the one we want and test it.”

Most field corn and soybean varieties are already genetically modified, but wheat is not. Key overseas markets do not want GMO wheat, and no GMO wheat varieties are commercially available.

A U.S. crop variety developed using the new technology would not be considered a GMO because it does not involve the introduction of genetic material from outside the species. However, it would be regulated in Canada, which regulates breeding products considered novel, Adams said.

“From the standpoint of science, there’s nothing that’s been done with the plant that couldn’t eventually be done with breeding,” he said. “However, because the process … involved our intervention, more than what we do with breeding, there’s a set of people who believe it should be regulated.”

Farmers would have to consider individual nations’ regulations when exporting their crops, Adams said.

Monsanto’s agreement is non-exclusive, so the institute can license the system to other companies and universities, Adams said.

“The more people using this technology, the better,” he said. “The more it’s going to accelerate the types of innovation that our customers are looking for.”

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