J R Simplot Company announced the agreement with DowDuPont Inc. and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, developers of the nascent gene editing technology.
Simplot is the first agricultural company to receive such a license. "We think this is a transformative technology it's very powerful," said Issi Rozen, chief business officer of the Broad Institute.
This technology could be used to help farmers produce more crops and make grocery store offerings such as strawberries, potatoes and avocados stay fresher longer.
The technology allows scientists to make precise changes to the genome of living organisms and has wide-ranging applications for improving plant food production and quality.
"It's important to be able to produce enough food for the nine to 10 billion people who will be on the planet in 30 years." The gene editing technology is called CRISPR-Cas9, the first part an acronym for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats."
The technology speeds up the traditional process of breeding generation after generation of plants to get a certain desirable trait, saving years in developing new varieties that are as safe as traditionally developed varieties, scientists say.
Essentially, if an organism's genome is made analogous to a large manuscript, CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to edit specific words in the manuscript using a "search and replace" function.
The CRISPR-Cas9 technology is so new that in March the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates how food is produced, issued a statement clarifying its oversight of foods produced with gene editing.
"Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques," the agency said.
The company has already used other genetic techniques to adapt genes from wild and cultivated potatoes to produce commercially sold potatoes that resist bruising and late blight, which caused the Irish Potato Famine and continues to cause problems for potato farmers. Gene editing is expected to further the company's expertise in potatoes.
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