Monsanto To Use CRISPR Gene Editing Tech To Create New Seeds

The licensing agreement, however, puts some key restrictions on the biotech firm

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 22, 2016 at 4:52 PM ET

Agribusiness giant Monsanto announced Thursday that it has reached a licensing agreement for the use of the gene-editing CRISPR-Cas9 tool with MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute. The company said it would utilize the technology in creating new seeds.

“The license to CRISPR-Cas from the Broad Institute provides access to an exciting tool for our growing body of genome editing research,” Tom Adams, Monsanto’s biotechnology lead, said in a statement. “Genome-editing technology is complementary to our ongoing discovery research and provides an incredible resource to further unlock our world-leading germplasm and genome libraries.”

CRISPR/Cas9 is short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and a “CRISPR-associated” enzyme.” It is a gene-editing tool that permits scientists to painstakingly edit DNA in bacteria, animals, and humans. The technology has been used to edit human embryos and even tweak pig genomes, but in agriculture, gene editing could potentially lead to the creation of crops that are drought-resistant and/or healthier for consumers.

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“Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture,” said Issi Rozen, the Broad Institute’s chief business officer, in a statement. “We are encouraged to see these tools being used to help deliver responsible solutions to help farmers meet the demands of our growing population.”

However, Rozen wrote in a blog post that “just as in biomedicine, the use of genome editing in agriculture raises important ethical and safety standards.” A main concern is gene drive, a contentious technique in which a trait is always spread throughout an entire population despite the possibility of unknown consequences. According to STAT News, the licensing deal doesn’t permit Monsanto to use gene drive, a caveat that highlights just how potentially powerful CRISPR is.

STAT News also notes that the Broad Institute has since 2013 issued more than a dozen licenses for CRISPR-Cas9 commercial research. Companies such as GE Healthcare, Editas Medicine, and Evotec have all utilized CRISPR, though Monsanto represents the first company using the tool in an agricultural context.