Gene-editing: Frankenfood Lite?

August 15, 2018

Calyxt, Inc., a small, mostly unknown company located in New Brighton, MN, may be on the verge of making a major breakthrough in genetically modified plant technology. The company uses a form of genetic modification called gene “editing” to target specific genes in an organism and either disrupt or positively change that gene. This differs from conventional genetic modification in that the latter involved transferring a gene from a different organism into the target organism to get reach a desired outcome.

The main benefit of gene editing is that it takes a fraction of the time from inception to market readiness, and it costs a fraction as much as conventional genetic modification. This allows the smaller, less well funded companies to enter the industry alongside Big Ag giants like Monsanto. Another benefit is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided that these genetically edited organisms do not qualify for regulation, meaning that the development of genetically edited organisms can be a much quicker and more streamlined process than genetically modified organisms. The rationale behind the USDA’s decision not to regulate is that genetic modification is essentially an expedited process for natural genetic editing of organisms that can be completed over years of specific, intentional pollination or breeding for specific characteristics.

This does not mean, however, that these genetically edited organisms will go without any regulation at all. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has plans to regulate genetic editing in both plants and animals. The FDA is purportedly in the process of developing regulation strategies that will be adequate to ensure the safety of the genetically modified organisms while still allowing these companies to introduce the products to the market.

Calyxt, Inc. is a relatively young company, having only been founded in 2010, but that is not stopping them from going full steam ahead with their plans to innovate and bring improvements to important food products. Their mission statement indicates an intent to improve the health of society through better quality ingredients. They developed a genetic editing system they refer to as TALEN to create the desired qualities of their organisms.

Their first product is an edited soybean that produces oil with 80% oleic acid, 20% less saturated fatty acids, and zero trans fats. Oleic acids have been linked to reducing LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol as well as decreased blood pressure. The beans were planted this spring on select farms in South Dakota and Minnesota. Those crops are expected to be the first genetically edited plants to be sold commercially.

The next product in the work for Calyxt is a high fiber wheat. The goal with this organism is to produce a high fiber wheat flour that will provide up to 100% of the recommended daily total for fiber in a single serving. Currently a single serving of wheat flour only provides about 49% of the recommended daily value of fiber.  For many Americans 49% of the daily value is all that is consumed.

Calyxt is currently working to genetically edit canola, potato, and alfalfa products as well. Each of these products is eventually meant to have multiple improved features, such as improving the protein in soybeans as well as maintaining the oleic acid levels, drought tolerant characteristics in many of their organisms, cold storage potatoes that don’t brown, and more.

Being such a young company and already having so much in the works gives a promising outlook for this small startup. Time will tell if genetic editing will allow them to compete with Big Ag companies.

Image Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Thin Lei Win

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