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Monsanto gets license to use gene editing tech CRISPR to engineer crops

Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Outside Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis

Monsanto has acquired a license to engineer crops using the revolutionary gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9. 

The tool is considered more effective and simpler to use than the transgenesis method of developing genetically modified organisms. Developing a GMO involves introducing a foreign gene that carries a trait, such as resistance to drought or a particular pest. Testing a GMO seed can take years and complying with regulations that control such products can raise costs of development. 

CRISPR works differently in that scientists make small changes to genes to generate new traits. Since CRISPR is not as regulated as GMOs, using the tool could help Monsanto and other agriculture technology companies develop genetically modified crops with less money spent. 

CRISPR could help agriculture face up to environmental challenges, said Channa Prakash, dean of arts and sciences at Tuskegee University and an expert in plant genetics.

"Agriculture needs to continuously evolve itself and become more efficient," he said. "There is greater need for us to develop crops in the face of climate change, for instance. [CRISPR] is just another tool that will help scientists make agriculture more efficient and sustainable."

This is the first time the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard have issued its CRISPR-Cas9 technology for agricultural use. The license does include restrictions on use, such as gene drive, a way to spread a new trait across an entire species. The environmental effect of the method is unknown.

The license also prohibits using CRISPR to develop sterile "terminator seeds" that prevent plants from producing fertile seeds. That forces farmers to buy seeds for each growing season. 

"We don't view it as a replacement for the tools that have been so successful for industry and growers for quite some time," said Camille Scott, a spokesperson for Monsanto. 

"It's an exciting time not only for Monsanto but for agriculture generally to have access to tools that will improve solutions for growers," Scott said. 

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.