An Alternative to Monsanto and Gene Splicing

Posted by: Michael Arndt on May 5, 2010

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.

Reader Comments

Jimmy

May 13, 2010 4:09 PM

This is bullsh*t! All this is designed to do is get around the law and continue to expose people to dangerous mutations! Thats why gmo's are banned around the world because people woke up to the truth that they are un-natural and dangerous! consumers DONT want franken-foods! we want natural food that hasn't been contaminated by the likes of monsanto and now these criminals. the ones who have done this to us will be held accountable and I cant wait for that day to see all of these criminals in jail for crimes against humanity.

Trish

May 14, 2010 6:51 PM

Thanks for your piece, sharing this, but I agree with Jimmy. I don't want to eat GMOs, but it seems like they are finding new ways of infiltrating crops other than soybeans. Plus, won't the small farmers be held in the pocket of Cibus, just as Monsanto has done? I wouldn't be surprised if they end up having to pay both/all big players of these GMOs. So maddening.

Hooser16

May 22, 2010 5:51 AM

Have you seen "Food, Inc."? Scary how farmers can't farm. This translates that we, as eaters, can't eat (what we want). I get "sickened" when I watch a commercial of "RoundUp." Monsanto: money is the only motivation.

Kim

June 11, 2010 8:45 AM

Jimmy,
I have also had my concerns with new technology. I see you are quite passionate about the subject. I'd like to know more about your view point.

What information do you have that explains what it is, exactly, that we are to fear? I want to be able to talk to people, but I don't have the words (and I can't swear at them, it does not make for a good exchange of information).

Aaron

June 11, 2010 2:42 PM

This is a totally new kind of modification to plants. What monsanto and others do is add a totally new type of genetic material into a different species.
What Cibus is doing is very different. They are changing the individual plants genes that already exist in the plant. For example...if a potato has a gene that can make the plant resistant to an herbicide, Cibus can change that gene using the potatoes own biological mechanisms. This is just sped up evolution.
If you think of it this way its not so far from how corn has been raised before biotech came around. corn has been bred to be big and yellow via artificial selection. If Cibus can "encourage" a change in the plant, this is a way more ethical option than what monsanto can offer.

Shawna

July 12, 2010 11:59 AM

RTDS relies on traditional plant breeding techniques that have been around for hundreds of years to create new, improved strains of plants and products. With RTDS crops, American farmers will be able to enter the global markets that reject GMO crops and compete in those markets with a commercially-viable alternative.

Since RTDS-converted plants make their own natural change, their yield and performance are inherently better than the yield and performance of plants with traits developed using older transgenic methods as the RTDS operates exclusively within the genome of the plant, just like normal plant breeding. RTDS converted genes remain in their native location without random, uncontrolled or adverse patterns of expression.

check out more at: http://www.cibus.com/video1.php

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