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Monsanto Licensing MIT/Harvard Genome Editing

Gene editing illustration


23 September 2016. Monsanto Company is licensing genomic editing technology for agricultural applications from a joint research center at Harvard University and MIT. Financial aspects of the agreement between the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT and Monsanto were not disclosed.

Monsanto, in St. Louis, is a designer of seeds and soil treatments often using genetic engineering to create new varieties to meet conditions faced by growers. The Broad Institute is a research center investigating advanced scientific issues in the life sciences primarily for biomedical applications.

The institute’s labs are among the pioneers in developing clustered, regularly interspaced palindromic repeats or Crispr, a technology based on bacterial defense mechanisms that uses RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing of genomes with Crispr uses an enzyme known as Crispr-associated proteins or Cas. With this approach to Crispr, RNA molecules guide Cas proteins to specific genes needing repair, making it possible to address root causes of many diseases.

The deal with Monsanto gives the company a worldwide non-exclusive license to Broad Institute’s patents for Crispr-Cas technologies. As reported in Science & Technology in December 2015, Feng Zhang and colleagues at Broad Institute designed enhancements to Crispr, making genomic edits with Cas enzymes more accurate, while maintaining Crispr’s simplicity and efficiency.

Those patents, however, are being challenged by University of California at Berkeley that claims it filed a patent for Crispr before the Broad Institute, while Broad Institute says its technology is more applicable to mammalian cells. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and its counterpart in Europe, are expected to rule on these challenges soon.

The financial implications of the rulings are enormous. Zhang is is one of the founders of Editas Medicine, a company applying Crispr to inherited diseases, which in February 2016 raised $94 million in its IPO. In May 2016, Intellia Therapeutics which licenses Crispr technology from UC-Berkeley, raised $108 million in that company’s IPO.

Monsanto says it plans to apply the search-and-replace functions of Crispr-Cas to designing new seed varieties. The company anticipates applying the the technology to add beneficial characteristics to crops or remove undesirable traits more efficiently.

Monsanto is not the first organization to apply Crispr to crops. In February 2016, University of California in Riverside received funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture to adapt Crispr-Cas genome editing for producing varieties of fruit resistant to citrus greening, a bacterial disease devastating citrus crops in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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