The Van Trump Report

Corteva Announces CRISPR Crop Breeding Innovation to Combat Corn Disease

Corteva has announced a new plant breeding innovation that uses CRISPR gene-editing to increase multi-disease resistance in corn. The company says the technology packages multiple disease-resistant native traits into a single location in the gene to better address the most devastating North American corn diseases facing farmers today.

As farmers are well aware, plant diseases are a real and growing problem for crop growers. Each year, these pathogens cost the global economy around $220 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In 2021, just four plant diseases – Northern leaf blight, Southern rust, gray leaf spot, and anthracnose stalk rot – combined to cost North America corn growers more than 318 million bushels in production.

Corteva’s multi-disease resistance concept aims to simplify disease management and reduce the need for additional crop protection product applications. In turn, Corteva says this will free farmers to select traits more in line with their yield goals than having to worry about disease resistance.    

CRISPR gene editing utilizes traits that already exist within a plant, therefore is not considered a “genetically modified organism,” aka GMO. By using the technology to combine and reposition traits, Corteva says it is able to both bolster disease tolerance and minimize production stress. Additionally, the technology could result in healthier plants and increase yield potential even further.

The company is in the late discovery stage, according to Tom Greene, vice president of biotechnology with Corteva Agriscience. While the new plant breeding approach is initially being applied to the diseases that most concern North American farmers, it has the potential to be scaled to other crops, incorporate other diseases or be otherwise tailored to specific geographies.  The company hopes to advance the concept to commercialization by the end of the decade.

CRISPR was first introduced to the world in 2012 and the first products developed using the technology have only now begun to hit the market. The very first CRISPR-developed human food product cleared for use in the US is a new type of mustard green engineered to be less bitter than the original plant. Developed by startup “Pairwise,” the greens were launched into the food service channel in mid-May.

There are no doubt numerous field crops in development but even with CRISPR’s precise editing capabilities, modifying plant traits can still prove challenging. According Timothy Kelliher, PhD, head of crop trait and technology discovery at Syngenta Seeds, important plant traits are often complex and thus involve multiple genes. “CRISPR is a great tool in a toolbox,” Kelliher points out, “but finding easy ways to edit plant traits with big impacts is rare.”

In most cases, the optimal alleles for all of the genes involved in a complex trait are unknown. Kelliher says that even though there are CRISPR tools that allow editing of multiple genomic targets, it is a biological challenge to know how to edit each gene involved in a trait and to figure out what effect the different edits have on a trait when they are all put together.

The easiest modifications are gene “deletions,” which have led to developments like ultra-high protein soybeans. Gene insertions are more challenging and can sometimes have a negative trade-off. But the science is advancing quickly and experts believe the next decade will bring a whole host of powerful crop developments that will play a critical role in feeding the world. (Sources: Corteva, Iowa Agribusiness, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News)

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