A variety of camelina that’s gene-edited to increase oil content can be grown without undergoing the USDA’s regulatory process for biotech crops.
The agency has determined the camelina cultivar doesn’t pose a plant pest risk, which means it’s outside the USDA’s regulatory jurisdiction over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The crop’s developer, Yield10 Bioscience, relied on a technology known as CRISPR to “knock out” a gene from camelina, eliminating a biological plant activity, thereby allowing it to produce more oil, said Kristi Snell, the company’s chief science officer.
Camelina is an oilseed that’s been studied as an alternative crop in Eastern Oregon and elsewhere in the arid West, since it’s capable of surviving with minimal irrigation.
However, the crop isn’t widely cultivated because it’s currently not profitable enough for growers, said Snell. “You need to get the yield up to make it viable.”
Yield10 Bioscience is examining the possibility of “stacking” the trait associated with increased oil content with other genes that improve yield, potentially making camelina more economically attractive, she said.
However, the company’s main goal is to apply what it learns from the gene-edited camelina to increase the oil content of canola or soybeans, Snell said.
Those crops are tougher to edit with CRISPR technology, whereas the process can be studied more readily in camelina.
“It’s very easy to work with. We can gather a lot of data quickly with camelina,” she said.
Because the gene-edited cultivar isn’t regulated by USDA, the company can move seeds across state lines and conduct field trials without obtaining a permit, Snell said.
“It really helps shorten the timeline and the cost,” she said.
Yield10 doesn’t aim to become a seed producer, so it would likely license the trait to another company for commercialization, Snell said.
Using CRISPR to alter genes doesn’t fall under USDA’s regulatory purview, but the views of trading partners, such as the European Union, are still evolving, said Snell.
“The jury is still out in these foreign countries,” she said.
The reaction of export markets to gene-edited crops will become apparent once they’re grown on a commercial scale, said Mary Boote, executive director of the Global Farmer Network, which advocates for biotechnology and trade.
“There’s no decision yet because there’s nothing available,” she said.
Unlike most biotech crops that are widely grown, those edited with CRISPR don’t incorporate genes from other organisms, Boote said.
That distinction may eliminate the “yuck factor” that has complicated public acceptance of biotechnology in agriculture, she said.
“It should theoretically not be an issue because it’s altering a gene that’s already in the plant,” Boote said. “I think it’s going to be looked at differently than other technologies.”
The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that’s critical of USDA, is concerned that USDA didn’t study the gene-edited cultivar’s potential to cross-pollinate with conventional camelina, which may hinder exports.
“I don’t think that even entered into consideration,” said Bill Freese, the group’s science policy analyst. “You really need to look at those things.”
Freese said that crops edited with CRISPR will also be met with resistance, even though the biotech industry claims they’re more acceptable because they lack foreign genes.
“That’s not the case. People are concerned about the gene-mutating methods that are used,” he said.