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Monsanto joins with Pairwise to develop base-edited crops

Ag giant invests $100 million to use new gene editing tool on plants

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 26, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 13


This photo shows a close up of a cotton boll on a green stem.
Credit: Shutterstock
Monsanto and Pairwise will work together on a precise form of gene editing for cotton and other row crops.

Monsanto is getting a head start in accessing a new type of gene editing tool called DNA base editing that it hopes will help it improve major row crops.

The agriculture giant says it will invest $100 million in a plant genome start-up called Pairwise. The firm was founded by gene-editing heavy-hitters David Liu and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT and J. Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Base editing is a type of gene editing that uses guide RNA and a form of the CRISPR-Cas9 enzyme to change the base pairs adenine and thymine to guanine and cyotosine, respectively.

In contrast, older CRISPR Cas9 tools cut the double-stranded DNA at a particular point and natural repair mechanisms put it back together, generally stopping the function of a gene.

In human health, the instability of cytosine can create genetic mutations that lead to inherited diseases. Gene editing can turn back the clock on those mutations. But in plant genetics, mutations are desirable as they can lead to better-performing hybrids.

Tom Adams, head of Monsanto’s biotechnology effort, will become the CEO of Pairwise. Adams says Monsanto has been involved with the start-up from its inception and was an early venture investor. The firms will collaborate to make base editing work well in plants.

“The tools need to be advanced even farther than they are now. We want to drive them farther and faster than would happen otherwise,” Adams tells C&EN.

The agreement gives Monsanto exclusive rights to edited corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola crops. Pairwise will also be able to strike other deals with companies for different crops, including fruits and vegetables.


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