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Where are the Canadian genome-editing startups?

Looser regulations give the U.S. an edge in GE product development, but Canadians are working on gene editing, too

Genome editing has made some major strides in the past year.

Minnesota-based Calyxt struck a deal with a processor to make oil from its GE soybeans, in which the genes responsible for trans fats have been ‘turned off.’

And SU Canola (a sulfonyurea herbicide-resistant variety) was given its Canadian commercial release a year ago by San Diego plant-breeding company Cibus.

One of the things that stands out about these two companies is their names. They are not Bayer, Syngenta, DowDuPont, or other big global players usually associated with ag biotech. Rather, both are relatively new, smaller companies for which relatively cheap GE technology has opened a new world of opportunity.

So where are the homegrown Canadian GE startups?

At this point, there are few as far as anyone knows. However, academic institutions and well-funded ag biotech companies are digging into the space, said Gijs van Rooijen, chief scientific officer with Genome Alberta, a major funder of public genomic research in the province.

“There is a lot of private research occurring at commercial entities that is not directly visible to the general public,” he said. “At the same time, there is significant research happening at publicly funded academic institutions.”

For researchers, private or public, the process of genome editing (also called gene editing) has greatly reduced costs. Technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 allow for a much faster process — possibly up to 90 per cent faster, according to some experts — than traditional crossbreeding or transgenic mutation (the technology used to create genetically modified organisms). This has thrown open the field of ag biotech to a host of new players.

Genome Alberta is funding some of that work, particularly projects examining the genomics of cattle and what is possible in terms of reducing feed inefficiency and methane emissions. The findings may have implications for GE work in the future, but van Rooijen said any objectives will likely be realized through traditional breeding as there is currently little social licence for genome-edited cattle.

“To date, there are no genome-edited animals approved for commercial use and the question remains whether or not society will be comfortable with this technology as applied to animals,” said van Rooijen.

And even though genome-editing technology is relatively inexpensive, ag biotech is a tough business with high costs of entry, said van Rooijen.

In fact, any Canadian biotech startup with a new GE crop would likely want to look at commercializing it south of the border, where a far different regulatory approach exists. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ruled GE plants are not GMOs, which allows genome-edited products to get to market faster and with minimal vetting.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, on the other hand, has ‘plants with novel traits’ regulations. Under this system, it doesn’t matter if a new plant breed comes via traditional crossbreeding, genetic modification or genome editing — if it’s got a novel trait, it is subject to a rigorous, and often lengthy approval, process.

While the U.S. approach may be good for GE developers, Canada’s product-focused regulatory approach is better from an overall safety perspective, said van Rooijen.

“I think regulating byproduct is the right way to go,” he said. “There are plant species that are not very healthy for humans to consume. If someone wanted to commercialize a toxic plant species for human consumption — even if the toxic trait has been removed — you really want to make sure they are regulated based on product to assure they are safe for human and animal consumption.”

In its simplest definition, genome editing involves the ability to turn plant genes ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on what trait you’re focused on — there is no introduction of foreign material or lengthy crossbreeding necessary. Advances in gene sequencing have given researchers the ability to quickly identify where genes are located on the cellular level, enabling the genome editing process and making it faster.

Although not specifically related to GE, Genome Alberta is funding several genome sequencing research projects in livestock. Genome sequencing is an important precursor to genome editing because it helps researchers identify the traits and associated genes they wish to emphasize or silence. Public acceptance will need to be won before genome editing becomes an important tool in livestock researchers’ tool boxes, but a better understanding of the genome is also important for traditional breeding.

“Genomics is being used to learn everything there is to learn about the cow genome — which genes are responsible for particular traits and the benefits of breeding those traits into the commercial stock,” said van Rooijen. “It will be really informative to cow-calf breeders to determine which bull to breed with which cow in order to come up with a progeny that is going to be better than what they started out with.

“If you can try to understand what is causing that variation then you can start breeding for cows that have a reduced methane output. By doing so, we’re basically developing cows that are better for the environment.”

Meanwhile, government researchers are thinking about how GE technology can help alfalfa producers deal with climate change. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers Stacy Singer in Lethbridge and London, Ont. colleague Abdelali Hannoufa are looking at how to introduce resistance to drought, salt, and abiotic stresses into alfalfa.

“There are wild relatives of alfalfa that are very tolerant to drought and salt — much more so than cultivated alfalfa,” said Singer. “We’re trying to identify which genes are the cause of this enhancement in drought tolerance in these wild relatives compared to alfalfa.

“We are targeting different genes that AAFC London has shown previously to be involved in some of these processes,” said Singer. “We are trying out different strategies hoping that some might work better than others in alfalfa.”

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