Jim Radtke may not be a gene whisperer, but his California-based plant genetics company, Cibus, has developed technology that allows it to communicate with and influence plant genes to produce desired traits.
Whether it be something like herbicide resistance, or drought tolerance in field crops, or producing a different-colored petal in a flower, as examples, the process known as gene editing doesn’t introduce anything foreign into a plant gene, says Radtke, a Cibus vice-president. “It is not GMO”, he says.
Rather the patented technology relies on the plant’s own natural process to accomplish a “change” which hopefully is the desired new trait. Working with very essence of DNA, Radtke says one base change, changing one nucleotide, is often sufficient to produce the desired new trait. “In the very simplest of terms it is like placing a template in the gene which tells the plant what to do,” says Radtke. “This process could take place naturally in nature over time, so our gene editing technology becomes an alternative to GMO plant breeding programs.”
Cibus has already used the technology to develop a herbicide-resistant canola they hope to introduce to Canada in 2017*, and Cibus is looking to work with any seed or chemical company interested in developing crop varieties with specific traits.
Natural “repair” job
Without getting too heavy on the science side, Cibus scientists use molecules — gene repair molecules — to create a “structure” in a plant gene. To the cell, this structure might be viewed as a typographical error in the way in which the gene is spelled. To correct the spelling, these “errors” also known as “mismatches” are repaired by natural enzymes using the plant’s own DNA. A single change in the genetic code is enough to repair genes and in some cases create new valuable plant characteristics, or trait.
“It is a natural process and we want to take advantage of that,” says Radtke. “We actually add a piece of DNA to the cell, which creates the mismatch or that mispelling. When that happens the enzymes say we have to repair something here, and they move to repair it. And at least 50 per cent of the time they repair it the way we had hoped. The DNA we enter into the cell only acts a template, it shows the plant DNA how we want to change it, but it doesn’t enter into the change itself.”
In further explaining the difference between gene editing and genetically modified breeding programs, Radtke pointed to BT corn as an example. He was involved in the original BT breeding programs back in the day.
With BT corn, the Bacillus thuringiensis gene is a soil-borne bacterium that was inserted into the corn plant to control pests. While it is effective technology, it would not occur naturally, so it is a genetically modified process.
On the other hand, Radtke points to weeds that come under pressure from herbicides and they naturally change to develop resistance to that herbicide. “A weed comes under that selection pressure from a herbicide, so then they mutate and change so they develop a resistance to that herbicide,” says Radtke. “In a very general sense that is what gene editing does. We introduce material into the gene, which causes the plant to respond and change, and hopefully the change produces a desired trait.”
SU canola variety
Cibus has already used the gene editing technology to develop SU canola, the first non-GMO canola resistant to sulfonylurea chemistry. The SU canola partnered with a product called Draft herbicide has been registered in the U.S. Cibus hopes to introduce the product to Canadian growers in 2016.
It becomes another option for growers on several fronts, says Radtke. SU canola is a non-GMO herbicide-tolerant variety, which in itself might create some marketing opportunities. It is tolerant to different chemistry, which makes it option for farmers looking to extend herbicide rotations and reduce risk of weeds developing herbicide resistance.
Cibus is looking to work in the Canadian and global market in various ways. Radtke says the company will be looking to develop specific plant traits it can market itself, but it is also interested in working with seed and crop protection companies as a partner. “We can work with another company and say you show us the gene you want changed to produce a specific trait and then we can apply our technology to develop this trait and then we can share in the royalties.”
Radtke says gene editing can be used for a wide range of genetic changes in plants. It is not just a process for developing herbicide resistance. It can be used to enhance or suppress any specific characteristic in a plant.
He sees an opportunity for SU-tolerant canola and soybean varieties in Western Canada. Cibus is also working on flax, potatoes and corn to develop weed and crop pest control changes in plant genetics. He says there may be opportunity to develop canola varieties with sclerotinia resistance. Some changes, such as improved drought tolerance in a particular crop, is more involved, involves several genes, that means it is more complicated, but not impossible, says Radtke.
“Our message to Canadian canola growers and farmers in general is that there is alternative and new technology available in plant breeding,” says Radtke. “It is precise and trustworthy, comes with no baggage, and provides opportunities in geographical areas and markets where non-GMO crops are in demand.”
*Editor’s note: The originally posted article stated, incorrectly, that the launch would occur in 2016.