Gene Editing for Agtech picks up pace
Caribou Biosciences, a startup founded by Jennifer Doudna, the scientist largely attributed with the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, has raised $30 million in Series B funding.
Dutch food and agriculture technology venture firm Anterra Capitalinvested alongside fellow agtech-focused VC Pontifax AgTech, healthcare investor Heritage Group, and Maverick Capital Ventures out of Dallas, Texas.
Existing investors F-Prime Capital Partners, Novartis, Mission Bay Capital, and 5 Prime Ventures also joined the round. Anterra Capital’s Philip Austin will join Caribou’s board.
Caribou is developing the gene editing technology for use across agriculture, therapeutics, biological research, and industrial biotechnology. In agriculture, it’s researching the use of CRISPR to promote drought tolerance, disease resistance, increase crop yields, and develop healthier crops.
“We’ve been looking for an investment in gene editing applications for agriculture and decided that Caribou was the industry leader,” Ben Belldegrun, managing partner at Pontifax AgTech, toldAgFunderNews. “The prospect of creating a radical new approach to accelerating trait development across crops and animals has positioned gene editing as one of the most revolutionary technologies in science. Caribou has partnered with leading strategic players to develop products across agriculture, therapeutics, and other industries –- which was key to our investment thesis. Pontifax’s focus on the convergence of ag and life science and strong history in biotech positions us perfectly to add value to a prestigious group of Series B investors.”
For its agriculture biotech business, Caribou has partnered with DuPont to cross-license key intellectual property, and collaborate on research. The partnership also involves financial investments by DuPont including in Caribou’s $11 million Series A last April.
CRISPR, which stands for Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a molecular defense mechanism found in bacteria that Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered was able to effectively direct Cas9 enzymes to cut DNA.
Then, to use the technology in other organisms beyond bacteria, they combined the relevant RNA molecules that empower Cas9 to make the cuts — crRNA and tracrRNA — into a single, artificial guide RNA (sgRNA), enabling Cas9 to cut DNA in any organism. Once the DNA strands are cut, the desirable genetic sequence can then be inserted or simply left to naturally repair itself.
This has hugely sped up the time it takes to change genes, something that used to take months or even years using traditional techniques. The cost is also significantly lowered, and the procedure is relatively simple, according to reports.
Caribou is one of few startup businesses working on using CRISPR technology in the agriculture sector, and it’s certainly the most developed. But it joins a growing number of companies using other gene editing tools for agricultural applications.
In crop science, Cibus is developing herbicide-resistant oilseed rape using RTDS (Rapid Trait Development System), a mutagenesis gene editing technology, AgGenetics is using TALEN (Transcription Activator-like Effector Nuclease technology to produce heat resistant cattle, and Recombinetics is using both CRISPR and TALEN to produce more efficient livestock.
Both CRISPR and TALEN use engineered nucleases or “molecular scissors” but one major difference lies in the fact that CRISPR uses an RNA-guided sequence to cleave DNA whereas TALEN uses protein-based sequence recognition, like other genome editing technologies, Zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) and Meganucleases (MEGAs).
The discovery and implementation of CRISPR paves the way for other genetic techniques such as gene drives which could have major implications for agriculture. Gene drives work to propel a gene of choice throughout a population and have been mooted as key to combatting pest-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease too.
Dr. James West, COO of AgGenetics, believes that, although CRISPR has great potential, it will be a while before it can become a reliable technology to implement because it can make unintended edits where the CRISPR mechanism cuts the gene in the wrong place. TALEN, by comparison, currently has a higher level of specificity, he argues.
Caribou’s current research is focused on refining the CRISPR technology to reduce these “off-target effects”, Doudna told NewYork Times journalist Jennifer Kahn late last year.
So is this GM and how will it be received by the public?
Public perception remains an important factor to consider for companies such as AgGenetics and Caribou Sciences, considering the apprehension that has exists toward GMOs. Gene editing technology is not currently classed as genetic modification, however.
“Unlike with genetically modified organisms, these technologies are not considered transgenic as they do not transfer genes from different species, but rather the genes or alleles are taken from the same species,” explains West. Therefore, there is currently no regulation by the FDA, USDA, or European regulators for what are considered advanced breeding technologies and practices.
And this is a good thing for agricultural innovation and competition in the industry, Huw Jones, a senior research scientist at Rothamsted Research in the UK told Nature magazine. “If Europe regulates genome-edited organisms in the same way it does GM organisms, it will kill the technology here for all except the biotech companies working with profitable traits in the major crops,” he said in an interview in December.
It’s worth pointing out that gene editing technologies can be used to insert genes from other species, and that promoting resistance to harmful chemicals will raise similar arguments to the GMO debate, however, added Maywa Montenegro, a food systems researcher at UC Berkeley in an article on Ensia.