San Diego Business Journal

Co.’s Crops Find A Middle Ground

BIOTECH: Gene Editing May Be Acceptable Option to GMO By Brittany Meiling Originally published February 18, 2016 at 12:35 p.m., updated February 18, 2016 at 12:35 p.m.
   
San Diego-based Cibus is developing a process to edit plant genes as opposed to introducing new genes, which is the traditional gene-modification model. VP of Research Greg Gocal (left) and CEO Peter Beetham are shown here checking out the canola plants at one of their local greenhouses.

San Diego-based Cibus is developing a process to edit plant genes as opposed to introducing new genes, which is the traditional gene-modification model. VP of Research Greg Gocal (left) and CEO Peter Beetham are shown here checking out the canola plants at one of their local greenhouses.

— As high-profile companies such as Whole Foods and Chipotle turn up their noses to genetically modified (GM) foods, farmers are increasingly in search of crops that won’t turn off the consumer.

The farmers’ problem lies in growing consumer-friendly, non-GM crops that are as productive as genetically modified ones. GM seeds are designed to grow plants that can withstand heavy doses of herbicides and pesticides, while also being resistant to disease. Non-GM crops, by comparison, can’t be as competitive because they’re more likely to get sick, die early, and produce less at harvest time.

As those in the agriculture industry search for ways to appease consumers while keeping up with global demand, companies such as San Diego-based Cibus might have the answer.

Non-GMO Label

Cibus (pronounced see-bus) is fine-tuning a gene-editing technology that improves a crop’s resilience while remaining carefully outside the GMO line. Although Cibus is fiddling with plant genes, the technology is not the same as genetic modification and is therefore not classified as “GMO” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means Cibus’ crops can wear the label of “non-GMO” once they reach the shelves, a boon for farmers in need of consumer-friendly crops.

Critics of the technology fear gene editing is just “GMO 2.0” — a new and not-yet-regulated way to play with plant genes. But Cibus and other experts in the field say those fears are unfounded.

Inserting Foreign Gene

Traditional genetic modification involves inserting a completely foreign gene (from an animal or bacteria, for example) into a plant’s chromosome — like strawberries being injected with fish genes to protect the fruit from freezing. Much of the public has taken issue with the process, though there is not yet proof that GM plants are dangerous to human health.

Even so, consumer demand is shaping the marketplace, and scientists are being called to find new ways to improve crop yields without provoking the public. The new technology used by Cibus — called gene editing — is a less meddlesome way to improve plants. Instead of inserting a completely foreign gene into a plant’s chromosomes (like genetic modification), gene editing only plays with the crop’s existing DNA.

Greg Gocal, senior vice president of research and development at Cibus, said the company is adding much-needed diversity back into domesticated plants. Diversity exists naturally in the wild, but over time domestication has edged out certain undesirable traits. For example, the corn stalks ancestor (a plant called teosinte) didn’t look anything like corn in its early days.

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