GM biotech players outline their science roadmaps

ABIC 2012 Digest – Day Two: SMC media advisor Dacia Herbulock is attending the ABIC conference in Rotorua this week and is covering some of the sessions. The following is a summary of presentations given by scientists from Monstanto and DuPont two major global players in genetic engineering.

DuPont VP and Kiwi expat Dr John Bedbrook

Scientists from Monsanto and DuPont provided a detailed rundown of biotech products in the pipeline to a packed room at day two of the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) in Rotorua.

Dr Robert Reiter, a molecular biologist and VP Biotechnology at Monsanto, led off with images of blasted corn from the severe drought currently hammering US farmers, making a direct link to climate change impacts and the challenges of planning now for more extreme conditions in future.

Conventional crop breeding requires a 7 – 8 year cycle, compared to 10 – 15 years from inception to development for genetically modified crops, so accurately anticipating future needs is essential.

Hybrid corn

Early biotech successes for Monsanto targeted single traits — like insect or herbicide resistance – an approach that merely required the plant to express a single new protein. By contrast, engineering for drought tolerance involves a complex interaction of genes – over 30,000 genes in corn – which makes the process much more difficult and time consuming.

Monsanto is about to launch its first product in this space: a hybrid corn that will be drought-resistant with increased yield. Dr Reiter emphasised that breeding of hybrid varieties, while still the main approach used to target complex traits, has moved from field-based to lab-based selection in recent years, with genetic techniques feeding in to field trials throughout the process.

Other GM approaches Dr Reiter announced seek to buy a bit more time in the relentless arms race between crops and weeds. Pesticide resistance is a growing problem, one that Monsanto acknowledges, with more weeds every year developing a tolerance for formerly unsurvivable herbicides like glyphosate (a.k.a. RoundUp).

The response from Monsanto involves stacking resistance to new multiple herbicides in their new generation of GM crops, with the result that resistant weeds can be double-dosed with a combination of herbicides that is effective at killing them (for now).

Development of agbiologicals

A second, previously unseen approach involves the development of so-called “agbiologicals”, a new class of sprays that will contain RNA targeted to specific resistant weed varieties. The RNA sprays will also be used to fight off viruses in crops like tomatoes and lettuce. According to Monsanto, the sprays will have a temporary effect, lasting only as long as it takes for the RNA molecules to degrade.

In response to questions from the audience, Dr Reiter admitted that the way in which these new topical applications will be regulated is still an open question. He said, however, that Monsanto expects regulation to be significantly less burdensome than for transgenic plants or new agrichemicals, because, “RNA is a natural product, consumed constantly in the food we eat.”

In the next big keynote of the day, DuPont’s VP for Agricultural Biotechnology, Dr John Bedbrook, described three biotech approaches his company is pursuing. The first involved a recently approved GM technology for producing hybrid seed corn that eliminates the need for labour-intensive detasseling of plants, a traditional summer occupation of tens of thousands of high school students in the US each year.

The complex approach involves GM corn plants that are capable of pollinating neighbouring non-GM plants without transferring the genetically modified components of their DNA. The non-GM plants produce non-GM hybrid seed for sale to growers, while the GM plants produce ears of corn containing a 50/50 mix of seeds marked with a fluorescent red protein. These seeds can be automatically separated using an optical sorter, with the transgenic seed clearly identifiable, ready to be planted for the next season’s pollination duties.

The squeeze on soybean oil

The two remaining biotech approaches involve genetically altering the composition of soybeans to make them more digestible for animal feedstock, and to enhance nutritional and commercial properties for human consumption.

One method targets indigestible carbs in soybeans and forced the plant to produce more protein or oils instead. The second method completely changes the oil profile of the crop from what is found in nature, to make it more closely resemble olive oil. DuPont claims that soybean oil from this new GM variety will have increased shelf and fry life, and be cleaner-frying than existing soybean oils.

When asked by an audience member how it will compete with canola and other oils, Dr Bedbrook asserted that the new GM variety will also be substantially cheaper.