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San Diego company takes unique approach to agricultural technology

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The future of food production may not have to involve genetically altered crops or chemically enhanced plants, thanks to an enterprising San Diego company.

Founded in 2001, Cibus has developed a technology where it can change a single element of a plant's DNA to create an entirely new, and more desirable, characteristic.

The company's technology is called the Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS), an environmentally safe breeding tool that doesn't involve the introduction of any foreign genetic material.

Unlike traditional genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Cibus' process allows farmers to achieve a desired result without taking genetic material from one plant and inserting it into another.

"The genes (we need) are already in the plants. They don't need to be modified," said Peter Beetham, Cibus' senior vice president of research.

As an example, he said, RTDS can improve the healthiness of oil seed crops by making a very small change in a crop's genome. It can make the plant produce canola oil, which contains "good fat."

The technology uses advances in genome mapping to target a single gene. According to the company's Web site, the process is so precise it's like "altering a letter in a single word contained within a large book."

The RTDS process, also known as "gene conversion," harnesses the plant's own DNA repair mechanism, directing the repair enzymes to fix the gene in a specific way.

"I often say we're like kids in a candy store," Beetham said. "There are so many ways we can change a plant. The good news is we don't insert any foreign DNA or foreign nuclei."

In addition to altering a plant's fat characteristic, the scientists at Cibus can help affect the starch or sugar content of crops as well.

Genomics also has given the company the ability to look at genes and see how they interact so they can develop crop protection traits.

By using gene conversion, a plant can be naturally engineered to be resistant to diseases, insects and herbicides.

"One of farmers' biggest costs is usually for crop protection," Beetham said. "(We're) able to provide farmers with crops that can reduce their costs. The farmer uses less chemistry, uses less fuel (for crop-dusting planes), and that's also good for the environment."

The Cibus executive also said the company can reduce the amount of bruising in certain crops, like potatoes and tomatoes, protecting them when they get jostled during shipping and storage.

"There's just a whole different series of traits that we can address through this technology," he said.

The company touts that its system produces better crops than those grown transgenically for several reasons, including speed to market. Since the science behind it is so precise, RTDS can achieve a desired result in three or four fewer years than traditional GMOs, which use a more random approach.

Cibus' technology also has less of a regulatory burden, further speeding its path to market and costing less.

"Anything we do with our technology can be done using traditional techniques," Beetham said. "Ours is just faster and a better way to get there. The precision is remarkable."

The company has the potential to eventually get into the biofuel arena and help plants provide a better source of industrial oils.

"Every day, as we learn more about the genetic diversity of plants, we find more things we can apply (our technology) to," Beetham said. "We know how to sequence a whole genome. It's a whole new age of breeding. We can provide better food security."

He said other companies are looking into Cibus' technology.

"It is the wave of the future," Beetham said.

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