Company lays groundwork for gene-edited hemp

Capital Press reports

A biotechnology company has taken a key step toward genetically editing hemp with an eye toward easing large-scale production of the crop.

Calyxt, a Minnesota-based plant technology firm, has transformed the hemp genome to provide a “proof of concept” that the crop can be altered with its TALEN method of using “gene scissors,” said Sarah Reiter, its chief business officer.

“For us, it’s sort of a dream crop. It also needs a ton of improvement to reach that potential,” Reiter said.

Achieving a more uniform plant height, reducing the amount of psychoactive THC compound and enhancing the size and consistency of seed are among the traits that Calyxt will now try to develop in hemp, she said.

The company expects to concentrate more on fiber and grain production than the plant’s CBD content, she said. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is an extract that’s popularly used for its healthful properties.

“We’re happy to work with them to utilize our technology but it’s not our immediate focus,” Reiter said of the hemp CBD market.

If the crop’s height is less variable, it would be easier to harvest. Lowering the THC content would prevent hemp from testing above the 0.3% regulatory threshold for marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.

Apart from improving the quality of seed, the company also wants to encourage seeds to mature at the same time to maximize yield.

The process of developing those traits is expected to take three to five years for hemp, which the company typically achieves by deleting a gene to “up-regulate” other functions, Reiter said.

Hemp presents an exciting opportunity because it can produce fiber with less water and pesticides than cotton while also generating oil that can be used for biodiesel, she said.

“It’s also a great protein. It makes more protein than soy,” Reiter said.

Even so, the crop is “notoriously reluctant” to being gene-edited due to the complexity of its genome and such characteristics as female plants that develop male flowers, she said.

“There is a lot of complexity to any change you’re trying to make,” she said.

Calyxt plans to develop traits in breeder seed, which partnering hemp companies can then cross-pollinate with other varieties or multiply for the commercial market, Reiter said.


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