Prescription seed technology coming soon

Roundup Ready seed with built in resistance to glyphosate opened the doors to a new era of crop production. Double and triple stacked genes provided more flexibility.

Now, a new genetic platform will allow multiple genes with multiple traits from a single cell site, allowing growers to literally design a seed that addresses all their known production problems.

At the forefront of this newest era of crop production is a new genetic platform developed by Dow and called Exzact Precision Technology. It can be used across plants, algae and fungus. In addition to benefiting row crop farmers, the new technology has the potential to revolutionize development of biomass and algal and fungal species used for biofuel production.

Vipula Shukla, project leader for Exzact at Dow Agro Sciences is a long-time scientist who says the new technology is something she has dreamed of for a long time. It will open up so many more crop production advantages to farmers and can have an impact globally on our ability to produce more food on fewer acres and with less negative impact on our environment,” she says.

The new gene transfer platform is based on utilizing proprietary Zinc-Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) for trait engineering.

Developing a stacked trait typically means developing a trait in one line or variety. Then, combine a different trait in another line or variety and then through conventional breeding these are combined. The process is extremely difficult and it maxes out as you combine a number of traits.

The new Dow platform can cut that time in half, if not more by consolidating and condensing the breeding process. It also allows seed companies to put in multiple genes and traits that can be used as a foundation for their breeding programs.

The new technology can be used to add trans-genes at pre-specified, targeted locations within the genomes. Using Exzact Technology, scientists also can take out specific gene functions.

“For example, if we know what gene causes a peanut plant to be susceptible to white mold, we could remove that gene, modify it or disrupt it.

The new system of gene improvement also allows for adding genes, like Dow’s proprietary herbicide trait DHT that is scheduled to be released in 2010.

“I think of it as the agriculture version of personalized medicine. We have the capability to allow us ahead of time to decide what specific genetic modifications we want to make. We can do this quickly, with a high level of success,” Shukla says.

In the cotton industry, the new technology may allow U.S. cotton growers to grow longer fiber with the quality characteristics that make it more desirable to the spinning systems used in Asia and Central America where most of the world’s cotton is spun.

As we learn more about the genome of cotton, for example, it allows the molecular geneticists to make better predictions as to which gene is responsible for disease susceptibility, irrigation response, drought response. With fewer hypotheses from that side of the equation, the new technology can further reduce the time needed to get cottonseed that addresses these production issues to farmers.

“The biology of any plant is very complex. The genetic changes we are making are very specific. We can add a gene or take away a gene, if we know that gene is responsible for a specific activity within the plant. But the safety of the process is that these genetic changes don’t affect the millions of other biological processes that go on within the plant. While we can target and change multiple genes within a plant, these changes don’t affect other genes that can be good or bad in terms of agricultural production,” Shukla says.

With this new technology scientists can make changes by editing or rewriting native genes that are already in the plant. In these cases, no foreign DNA is introduced into the gene. Though not as dramatic as gene transfer, the re-designing of the genome can allow plants to develop over a period of years.

In the short-term, Shukla says farmers can expect to see the rapid acceleration of traits in many varieties across many crops. For example, herbicide, insect, disease-stacked tolerance traits will be developed rapidly and produce higher quality, more reliable products.

“In the mid- and long-term we are looking forward to new and unique products that could not have been developed until now, For example, drought tolerant plants simply could not be developed with conventional gene technology,” Shukla says.

Though Dow currently has exclusive rights to Exzact Precision Technology, Shukla says through agreements with other companies, she anticipates the technology will be used across the industry, making virtually any crop and trait available through the entire seed distribution channel to farmers in the future.

One of the constant complaints by farmers of the current generation of genetically altered seed is yield drag. Getting the traits they want in the varieties they want has been an ongoing challenge for all seed companies.

Shukla says one of the advantages of the new technology is by deciding ahead of time where to insert a particular trait, “We can prevent or minimize the negative affects of conventional biotech, which is random integration. One of the ways we can mitigate the yield drag issue is to select a safe harbor, or safe landing pad, within the genome where we can insert the desired genetic traits,” Shukla explains.

Agriculture is poised to enter a new era of crop production with virtually unlimited opportunities to overcome production problems and mitigate the influence of weather problems that have plagued farmers from the time man first tilled the soil for food.