In recent years, plant breeders have brought us many great crop varieties — higher- yielding soybeans, drought-tolerant corn, disease-tolerant wheat and sweeter, juicer apples. Most new plant varieties take years, sometimes decades, to develop by genetically modifying through either traditional breeding or GMO-based techniques.
Now, with the help of gene editing technology, we might not have to wait as long for the next great crop varieties. What initially may have sounded like science fiction, has become a useful tool at the hands of farmers across the country.
To learn more about how gene editing actually works, we talked with Tom Stoddard, Grower Relationship Lead at Calyxt — a U.S. company that is developing through gene-editing healthier food ingredients for consumers that are not only high-quality and convenient, they also taste great.
Tom explains how the gene-editing process works, how it is different from GMO and why this is good for farmers. Tom and the team at Calyxt developed a high-oleic soybean trait using gene editing, which FBN farmer members have an opportunity to grow on contract, so we used that crop as an example of gene editing throughout.
Why gene editing?
For thousands of years, plant breeders have been developing new seed varieties by selecting plants with desirable traits, cross-breeding them and replanting them every year until they get the end result they’re looking for. This process can take years to perfect. Gene editing is a technology that allows scientists to perform this same procedure that breeders previously conducted, without the need to rely on random variation. Gene editing is a new plant breeding technique that directs the variation needed to create useful products much faster and with more accuracy.
How does gene editing differ from GMO technology?
Simply put, gene editing only involves changing the DNA sequence of a specific organism. It doesn’t involve the transfer of DNA from one organism to another, as with a genetically modified organism (GMO). Plants in nature have random variations, and sometimes these variations lead to healthier characteristics for consumers and / or more productive crops. However, these natural evolutionary processes can take decades or longer to develop and find the desirable traits.
With gene editing, we rely on the plant's natural machinery to make these edits for us. We simply make a break in the DNA sequence and then we allow the plant to do the work after that, whereas with traditional GMOs, you're taking foreign DNA and you're inserting it into the plant’s genome. Using Calyxt’s proprietary gene editing technology, TALEN, we are able to achieve the same outcomes that occur in nature quicker and more accurately, without the randomness that’s inherent to natural processes – all without inserting any foreign DNA into the final products.
The USDA has two questions they ask about gene editing: One, ‘Did you add any foreign DNA? And the answer is no. And then two, ‘Could this occur in nature? And indeed, high oleic soybeans actually can and do occur in nature.
How does gene editing work?
Scientists are able to target genes within a plant’s DNA and effectively “delete” undesirable traits, the same result that can randomly occur in nature. Picture an imaginary scissors cutting a microscopic section of a DNA strand. We can go into a plant cell and remove one section of DNA in the soybean genome that tells the plant to make low-oleic soybean oil. Now you potentially have a soybean that grows up and makes high-oleic soybean oil.
Once we confirm the alteration to the DNA has occurred, we then regenerate the plant and make sure that it is producing a healthier oil. From this point our seed bulking is the same as any other soybean seed bulking, with seed producers both in North and South America to get varieties to our farmers as quickly as possible.
How will gene editing technology help farmers?
Calyxt was founded on delivering less-processed, nutritionally rich foods. Our products aim to directly address some of the biggest health issues in our world, including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and food-related allergies. We hear what consumers are saying loud and clear and are working to be part of the solution.
As consumer demands shift, we can now adapt to those changes much more quickly by utilizing gene-editing technology. If the product is in high demand, that means higher profits for farmers. We can develop crops with specific traits and get those products to market in significantly less time than with traditional plant breeding.
Of course, there’s also the ability to use gene-editing technology to produce new and improved crop varieties that have traditionally given farmers higher returns – such as higher yielding or more resilient crops.
The program with our high-oleic soybeans is 100 percent vertically integrated. So if an FBN network farmer is growing Calyxt high-oleic soybeans with us, they produce the beans under a contract. We sell seed but then we agree to buy back 100 percent of their production for a premium.
Why do food companies like gene editing?
With this technology, we're able to take the products that we always grew up loving to eat and just making them a bit healthier. Whether it's a high-fiber wheat, a high-oleic soybean, or potentially reducing allergens in certain food products – we have that ability now.
So, when you look at traditional soybean oil, it has a certain fat quality. We've changed the profile from a standard soybean oil to look a lot more like an olive oil by increasing the oleic levels, and this is why we call it high oleic.
But what does that really mean? This is one of those fats that tends to be a lot better for the heart. At the same time when we did this, we also reduced the saturated fat. So not only is it healthier for the consumer, but the food companies and food service also love it.
It just so happens that this healthier fatty acid composition, this oil quality, provides fryers with a much longer frying time, and it provides food companies with much longer shelf life without partial hydrogenation, thereby eliminating trans fats. Not only do they get health benefits, but they also get functionality benefits. So, if you're making granola bars, you can either put our granola bar on the shelf for three times as long, or you can buy a much cheaper biodegradable packaging that allows more oxygen through. But with our oil, they won’t be sacrificing shelf life.
What else can gene editing offer crop buyers?
Another thing the food companies really love is our traceability. We're scientists at heart, we track everything. So for our producers that are growing our seed this year, the seed that's on their farm can be traced all the way back to the parent seed, all the way back 'til 2012 when we made that very first plant. Food companies love to see this because we like products that are grown in the U.S. and consumed in the U.S. So we can offer our partners, the food companies, the ability to put a QR code on your package that consumers can scan and will show them that the soybean oil in that granola bar was produced in Hand County, South Dakota, or wherever it may be.
What does the future look like for gene editing?
The possibilities are limitless with this new technology—in 10-20 years it is not hard to imagine that nearly all new crops will be made using gene editing. Gene-editing technology is truly one of the great innovations in food and farming in recent years. From more profits for farmers to better food for consumers, it’s likely to change the face of agriculture for generations to come.
At Farmers Business Network, we’re bringing farmers closer to emerging technology and new opportunities that can help them to be more profitable. That’s why we’re working with companies like Calyxt. One of the benefits of being an FBN network member is that farmers have the opportunity to partner directly with companies who are developing emerging technologies that help provide new markets for their crops.