Monsanto Nets First CRISPR License to Modify Crops—with Key Restrictions

From Scientific American:

But the deal comes with restrictions that speak to the startling power of CRISPR, as well as widespread public anxiety about genetically modified crops: Monsanto cannot use it for gene drive, the controversial technique that can spread a trait through an entire population, with unknown consequences.

Since 2013 the Broad has issued more than a dozen licenses for commercial research using CRISPR-Cas9, including to Editas Medicine, GE Healthcare, and Evotec. This is the first for agricultural use. Genome-editing of crops offers the potential of increasing yields, reducing the use of chemical pesticides (a plant can be genetically modified to thwart insects), and making strains tolerant of the droughts that are becoming more frequent with global climate change.

But “just as in biomedicine, the use of genome editing in agriculture raises important ethical and safety concerns,” Issi Rozen, the Broad’s chief business officer, wrote in a blog post.

Leading the list of those concerns is gene drive, in which CRISPR-based genome editing alters normal inheritance in such a way that traits are always passed on to offspring. That could spread a new gene throughout an entire population in only a few generations. If the trait is, say, the ability to kill insects, then making that gene ubiquitous in a crop could pose unknown threats to ecosystems, a recent National Research Council report warned.

The Broad also stipulated that Monsanto not use CRISPR-Cas9 to create sterile (“terminator”) seeds. In this approach, genetically altered crops do not produce fertile seeds, so farmers must buy them every year, a financial burden to them but a boon for the seed companies. No such crops have been commercially deployed, and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended they not be developed.

The non-exclusive license also cannot be used for any R&D on tobacco that’s related to smoking. That might …

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