The second-largest seed company in the world, DuPont Pioneer, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, said they reached an agreement to jointly develop improved crops using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas for smallholder farmers around the world. The agreement, announced at CIMMYT’s 50th anniversary conference in Mexico City, brings the new technology into the public breeding organization for the first time.
“In a world of rapid technology evolution, it’s essential that new approaches such as CRISPR-Cas are applied widely to benefit both poorer and wealthier farmers,” said CIMMYT Director General Martin Kropff in a statement. “This collaboration with DuPont Pioneer will allow us to provide climate and disease resilient varieties more quickly to smallholder farmers in the developing world.”
The tool will first be used to address maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease, which was identified in Kenya in 2011. The disease spread quickly, reducing corn production by an average 3 percent in dry areas and 32 percent in wetter environments, with up to 90 percent losses on some farms. In Kenya, the disease hit one-quarter of the crop, with $110 million in annual losses.
CIMMYT found some resistant varieties to the disease and transferred that resistance into modern seed lines with conventional breeding. The CRISPR-Cas technology is expected to speed up that process.
“If groups like CIMMYT that breed routinely for the public good recognize the value for [CRISPR-Cas], I think it helps people see the technology as just not the province of one or two big companies,” Neal Gutterson, vice president research and development at DuPont Pioneer, said in an interview. “We think of it as a democratization of the technology.”
“The ultimate value … will depend upon what we think about as the ‘social license’ of the technology,” he added. “Is the public comfortable with the technology? And so will it be adopted?”
Gutterson said the regulatory response to the technology is still unknown globally, although the USDA has ruled that a mushroom and DuPont Pioneer’s waxy corn, which were produced with CRISPR, were not subject to the same regulatory framework as GMOs.
In DuPont Pioneer’s view, the technology is the same as conventional breeding. “The safety profile is that of breeding, because the outcomes are the same as breeding,” Gutterson said. “You’re working with corn genes in corn,” rather than bringing in genetic sequences from other species. “So we think the safety profile is just the same as conventionally bred varieties.”
He said DuPont Pioneer’s waxy corn variety took about 1-2 years from concept to greenhouse — an especially fast breeding process. “Today we’re working in corn, soy, rice, wheat, and canola — a wide range of crops. We think it will be valuable very broadly.”
As for the work with CIMMYT, “I think there are opportunities to share some of the benefits to come out [of the partnership],” he said. “If it does have value outside of the developing world, we’d have the opportunity to look at that.”
Aside from MLN disease, Gutterson said he thought CRISPR-Cas could help address diseases striking banana and cassava, since those crops take very long to breed conventionally. Once disease-resistant sequences are identified, they could be edited into existing varieties using CRISPR-Cas technology on a potentially shorter timeline.
(FERN’s Ag Insider was a media sponsor of the CIMMYT 50 conference, but there was no agreement on covering the event or the scope of coverage.)