New non-GM breeding could lead to healthier oils

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Dna Genetics Gene

A new non-GM plant breeding technology is expected in the next two
years to result in the launch of 'environmentally friendly'
trait-enhanced crops, such as canola, sorghum and rice.

A gene conversion technology, the Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS) is initially being used to develop herbicide tolerance and improved yields, but will also be used to develop improved crop characteristics that will benefit the food industry. These include the development of healthier oils and nutraceutical oils in crops such as canola and soybeans, as well as starch modification in corn or wheat, according to the developer of the technology, San-Diego-based Cibus. "This is not genetic modification by transgenic means,"​ said Cibus president Keith Walker. "We don't incorporate any foreign DNA into an organism. Our technology allows us to correct DNA without that by making small changes in genes that impart a new property into a plant,"​ he told The RTDS process works through the cell's natural process of gene repair. Every time a cell copies DNA, it makes 'scrivener' errors or spelling mistakes, explained the company. These variations happen all the time, which is how natural variation occurs. Cibus' technology harnesses the cell's own natural DNA repair machinery to correct such spelling mistakes, thus directing DNA repair enzymes to correct and repair the targeted gene in a specific way in order to produce a desired trait. Cibus said its technology is "completely different"​ from Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), which has been in use within the biotechnology and seed breeding industry for more than 20 years. The firm said that MAS does not create new traits, but instead follows genetic characteristics already in the plants using molecular fingerprinting. In contrast, RTDS has the ability to create new traits in plants without the insertion of foreign DNA. Early this year, Cibus teamed up with The National Grain Sorghum Producers Foundation to create a partnership with Valent, a provider of crop protection products. The partnership is designed to provide sorghum producers with genetically enhanced products that will improve the productivity and profitability of the crops. The first products are expected to be introduced in the US for the 2009/2010 growing season, with a launch in Europe forecast soon after that. Cibus is also planning to use its technology to modify vegetable oils, for example to reduce levels of trans and saturated fats. "The food industry needs an 'all natural hard butter', as well as high stability oils for frying. The notion is to take a vegetable oil and eliminate some of the polyunsaturated fats - that increases the utility of the oil as a solid fat,"​ said Walker. The firm's vegetable oil modification programs are still in their infancy, although they have been initiated in the laboratory. According to Walker, one of the advantages of RTDS is its speed to market, taking three to four years less to develop than crops produced by transgenic engineering. With RTDS, a program could take between one and three years to develop in the lab, followed by a 30-month process to create the trait, and by a plant breeding exercise. "If all goes well, from the time a trait is identified it's about four years to get the product on the market in limited supply,"​ said Walker. The cost to develop a new product is set at around $3-5m. However, the firm - which currently only has 20 employees, although it expects to grow by 50 percent within the next four months - recognizes the need to team up with "the big players"​ in order to proceed in applying the technology to crops such as soybeans. According to Walker, RTDS is a much less controversial technology than genetic modification. The firm has discussed its technology with a number of public interest groups, and said the response was one of "less concerns than those raised by transgenics". ​ Indeed, according to consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), RTDS could have "some promise". "This does eliminate some of the concerns with plant breeding and trangenics. But we'd still obviously need to see firstly that the technology works in practice and secondly that there are no safety concerns,"​ said CSPI director of biotechnology Gregory Jaffy. "This is another method, although I'm not sure if it'll be a complete substitute to GM. It'll probably be more of an overlap than an alternative. My understanding is that there may be certain types of traits that can't be achieved with this technology, although it could be a different way to solve some agricultural problems,"​ he told

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