Last week, agriculture giant Monsanto (NYSE: MON) just licensed the most important biotech breakthrough of the 21st century…and no one blinked an eye.
You may remember Monsanto being called “Monsatan” or “Frankenfood” for its production of genetically modified seeds and agricultural products. Well, the company is turning over a new leaf (no pun intended), and has acquired the rights to the CRISPR gene-editing tool from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was developed several years back to go through a string of DNA and selectively delete or repair any problems found. In certain circumstances, it can even make an addition to make the DNA stronger.
So what does Monsanto want with it?
In the fight to make crops more resistant to drought and disease, Monsanto’s main tactic over the years was to combine different species of plants together to create super crops.
Under current U.S. federal law, combining multiple species of plants together qualifies the end product as a Genetically Modified Organism, or GMO.
Depending on what side of the grocery store aisle you shop on, buying GMO food can be viewed as a great value for the whole family, or the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.
Despite the raging debate over leveraging the technology, GMO engineering has proven to be extremely time consuming and expensive. A survey completed in 2011 found the cost of discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology trait introduced between 2008 and 2012 was $136 million.
On average, about a quarter of those costs ($35.1 million) were incurred as part of the regulatory testing and registration process. The same study found that the average time from initiation of a discovery project to commercial launch is about 13 years.
That’s a lot of money. And a long time.
Part of the cost problem is that three separate government agencies regulate GMOs: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Here comes the kicker…
Editing the genes of individual species of plants using the CRISPR tool doesn’t actually make the end product a GMO under current federal laws.
This is because different species of plants aren’t actually being mashed together in a petri dish to make a better product. When leveraging CRISPR, only a single species is edited to remove defects.
The debate is still out on how long it will take U.S. lawmakers and regulators to catch up to this new technology. But Monsanto isn’t waiting to find out.
With CRISPR, the company just cut its plant engineering cycle time by years and is saving at least $35 million per trait on all CRISPR-edited crops.
In our eyes, this was a smart move.
Editor, BioTech Intel Trader
P.S. As Harry will tell you, we’re currently in the plateau of the 45-Year Innovation Cycle. Can you imagine the breakthroughs we’ll see when this cycle turns back up again? Harry gives you some ideas of what to expect, and when, in his latest book, The Sale of a Lifetime, available now.