tially becoming the first company to enter
the market with a gene-edited crop. At
least one other crop is nearing commercialization from DuPont, which used gene
editing to create a starchier corn plant.
To be sure, neither product is expected
to take over farmland the way herbicide-resisting GMOs did. Instead, these initial
examples are niche products with prosaic
objectives. DuPont’s “waxy” corn is going
to end up in glue sticks and as an emulsifier in salad dressing. Calyxt’s oil will fry
doughnuts and chips. Even so, the mountain of beans at McHenry’s farm shows
how quickly these crops could arrive.
McHenry, making some fast calculations,
estimated that we were sitting on 600 million of them. By then Stoddard, the salesman, had climbed into the story-tall grain
bin too. “Gene editing is the future, and
the first place it’s growing at scale is here in
South Dakota,” he said reverently, letting
beans drift through his hands.
Flipping a switch
The beans at McHenry’s farm are all
descendants of a single soybean cell modified in 2012 by Dan Voytas, the cofounder
of Calyxt and a professor of genetics at the
University of Minnesota. Voytas told me
he inherited a scientific interest in plants
from his father, a government forest manager. “It was ‘Okay, son, what tree is that?
Latin name, please,” he recalls.
I met Voytas at the startup’s green-
house outside of Minneapolis, where he
showed me fluid-mixing robots and a tall
gene gun that fires the DNA into a plant
cell. Green blobs growing on clear jelly in
petri dishes were canola plants “regenerat-
ing” from a single cell after receiving new
genetic instructions. The company has a
staff of 35, two-thirds of whom are sci-
entists. “We have a long list of ideas,” says
Voytas. “But you can get a great oil and a
sick plant. A lot of it is experimental.”
The startup uses a gene-editing tech-
nology called TALEN that Voytas helped
Canola plants “regenerate” from individual cells following a round of gene editing.