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Q&A: Neal Gutterson

In 2012, a targeted genome editing technology called CRISPR-Cas was developed. This accelerated and simplified genetic engineering technology can edit precise points on the genome of both plants and animals. It has taken the research world by storm. Neal Gutterson, DuPont Pioneer, explains how it could change agriculture.

SF: Why is this gene editing breakthrough important?

NG: CRISPR-Cas is a targeted plant breeding technology that will allow us to bring new and customized solutions to help farmers feed a growing planet in a much more efficient way.

SF: How does it work?

NG: Think of CRISPR-Cas as a text editor. It enables you to search in a document, find text you want to edit, and make a change. If the document is the 3 billion bases in the corn genome, for example, we could edit the exact spot that gives it a high tolerance to drought. 

SF: How does it differ from GMO technology from the 1990s?

NG: We tend to think about GMOs as bringing in foreign genes to deliver an output that you can’t find already available within the genome or gene pool of that particular crop. CRISPR-Cas technology is a way to evolve healthy seeds using the best native characteristics available in the crop. It capitalizes on the conventional plant breeding processes in an efficient way. We think of it as an evolution in breeding working within the characteristics of a crop. We are working with what nature gives us. This won’t replace other genetic tools, but it will be a very important one. 

SF: What are the benefits to agriculture?

NG: Besides corn and soybeans, DuPont Pioneer researchers are working with rice, wheat, and canola. The technology is easy enough to implement that people around the world are looking at a wide range of crops, including vegetables, fruit, and specialty crops for developing countries. Applications include disease resistance, tolerance to drought, improved yields, oilseed quality, protein composition, nutritional value, and much more. Many people are working all across the planet, in every country, to apply this technology over a wide range of crops. A lot of effort is going into this.

SF: How soon until we see products on the market?

NG: Depending on how well we know the biology we want to target with CRISPR-Cas, we can be very responsive to challenges and efficiently bring products to the market. We have identified our first product at DuPont Pioneer, which is a type of waxy specialty corn. We can forecast that to be in the U.S. market within five years. We certainly see ourselves creating a pipeline of products that will come out through the 2020s.

SF: Can anything slow it down?

NG: The technology is still in its early days, so there’s a lot being sorted out in the regulatory area. It will depend upon how the public perceives it. This technology can really improve what we can deliver to farmers – whether they are small growers in India or large growers in North and South America. Stay tuned. You’ll see seeds coming to the market in the next few years. We’re very excited about it.

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