Farmers and consumers have complained that in the U.S., at least, they really have no choice but to buy soybeans and field corn that contain genetic bits from other organisms, as I was reminded after posting this blog. Recently, I learned about a biotech company that might provide an alternative to the transgenic crops created by the likes of Monsanto and DuPont. Its first products are planned for smaller ag markets, though, such as canola and flax.
The company is Cibus Global. The privately held company was spun off from ValiGen in 2001, when management decided to narrow its focus to biodrugs. Keith Walker, a PhD biologist who, early in his career, was a Monsanto researcher, came over from ValiGen as Cibus’ president. Though Cibus is based in San Diego, I talked with Walker while he was vacationing in Las Vegas.
Here’s how he explained the different approach to bioengineering plants. (You can watch this Cibus video for more info.) Like Monsanto does when it sets out to add a new trait to a species—making it resistant to a weedkiller, say—Cibus sifts through databases to find an organism that already has that property. It then locates the exact bit of DNA that controls that function, again just like Monsanto or its rivals do.
At this point, creators of genetically modified organisms would insert that snippet into the plant’s own genes, essentially turning it into a new living thing. (Which is why many people are scared about GMOs and why governments have banned them.) Cibus also grabs that tiny string of molecules, but instead of implanting it, the company merely exposes it to the host’s DNA. This tricks the cell into thinking it’s found a mutation. To repair itself, the cell alters its own DNA, thereby incorporating the additional trait. The cell then digests and expels the foreign molecules.
Because Cibus-altered plants don’t carry genes from other species, they’re not subject to bans on GMO crops or labeling requirements.
Walker told me the Cibus way is also faster and cheaper than genetic modification. To get a GMO to the marketplace costs $70 million to $100 million and takes seven to 10 years, he said. By comparison, he said, Cibus can get there in three to five years for $7 million. The higher expenses make transgenics too pricey for smaller farm crops, providing Cibus an open field, if you will, for its “mutagenic” products.
The company is finding customers. On April 22, the Flax Council of Canada announced a $6 million deal with Cibus to develop herbicide-resistant flax. Canada exports 70% of the crop to Europe, which doesn’t allow genetically modified organisms into food. Cibus aims to have its new and improved—and safe-for-Europe—flax in fields in 2015. Cibus is also working to develop canola, potatoes, rice, and sorghum that can withstand weedkillers.
After these assignments, Walker dreams of using his bioengineering Rapid Trait Development System to create organisms that can produce oils for fuel or food, or a wheat that won’t cause allergic reactions to people with celiac disease. Last fall, to deepen its pockets, Cibus agreed to sell a 50.1% interest to Makhteshim-Agan of Tel Aviv over five years. But if Cibus can prove out its technology, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become the property of one of its giant competitors one day. They might want an alternative as much as farmers and consumers.
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