Monsanto backs new company focused on gene editing, not GMOs

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Monsanto Co will fund a new U.S. company that aims to develop crops using technology known as gene editing, rather than the genetic modification that helped it become the world’s biggest seed seller.

Monsanto logo is displayed on a screen where the stock is traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S. on May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Monsanto’s vice president of global biotechnology, Tom Adams, will leave the seed giant to become chief executive of the new firm, called Pairwise Plants, the companies told Reuters. He steps into the new role on April 1.

The collaboration accelerates a race among agricultural scientists and companies worldwide to develop new seeds for crops using gene editing, a process they say can produce non-GMO farm products that do not contain foreign DNA from a different species.

Unlike traditional GMOs, in which a gene is added from another organism, gene-editing works like the find-and-replace function on a word processor. It finds a gene and then makes changes by amending or deleting it.

Using “molecular scissors” to cut DNA means scientists can edit genomes more precisely and rapidly than ever before, and altered agricultural products could get to market more quickly and cheaply.

Monsanto, famous for engineering soybeans to resist the weed killer Roundup, will pay Pairwise $100 million over the next five years to finance research on gene editing tools, Adams said in an interview.

Pairwise will also research how to use the tools to alter commodity crops, including corn, soy, wheat, cotton and canola, exclusively for Monsanto, according to the companies. The deal allows Monsanto, which is being acquired by Bayer AG, to commercialize products from the partnership.

“The collaboration really will help accelerate the development of the technology,” said Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer.

Separately, Monsanto’s venture capital arm, along with investment firm Deerfield Management, each committed $12.5 million to form Pairwise as part of a Series A financing round, according to Pairwise.

Among Pairwise’s founders is David Liu, a Harvard University professor who pioneered a new form of gene editing that the company said allows scientists to make more precise changes to plant genomes.

Pairwise aims to hire up to 100 people in its first two years, said Haven Baker, who will be chief business officer. Baker formerly worked for McDonald’s Corp potato supplier J.R. Simplot Company on the development of a biotech potato.

Beyond commodity crops, Pairwise intends to use gene editing for research on other plants, possibly including fruit.

“We want to make food crops more convenient, affordable and sustainable,” Baker said.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Cynthia Osterman