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Biotech Partnership to Develop Non-Ricin Castor Plants

Castor beans

Castor beans (plants.usda.gov)

12 March 2014.  Precision BioSciences Inc. and Novo Synthetix, biotechnology companies in Durham, North Carolina, are collaborating on a new type of castor bean, without the ricin poison that makes the beans difficult to process and market. Financial and intellectual property aspects of the deal were not disclosed.

Beans from castor plants (Ricinus communishave the potential to become a rich source of industrial oils, plastics, chemicals, and biofuels, particularly as a renewable feedstock and additional cash crop for farmers. In September 2013, Evogene Ltd., an Israeli agricultural biotechnology company and SLC Agricola in Brazil began commercial development of engineered castor beans as an alternative source for biodiesel and other industrial products.

But castor beans are also highly toxic, and the source of ricin,  implicated in the ricin-laced letters sent last year to addresses in Washington, D.C., including the White House. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to even a small amount of ricin can be fatal.

Novo Synthetix is in the business of producing castor beans without ricin. Its strategy is to develop a new variety of castor plant, but without the introduction of alien genes, thus avoiding the label of a genetically-modified plant, which would make it more difficult to market in the U.S. and Europe.

Under the deal, Novo Synthetix will employ gene-editing technology from Precision BioSciences to create the non-ricin castor plant, yet still be considered non-genetically modified. Precision BioSciences uses enzymes it developed to alter natural genetic sequences. The company says its technology makes it possible to insert new genes into the sequence, or deactivate or remove unwanted genes. In addition, the technology can excise unwanted smaller genetic fragments rather than entire genes.

Novo Synthetix was founded in 2012 and received a $50,000 loan from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 2013. The company won last year’s Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase put on by North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

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