This RTP startup is using gene editing to improve crops, from corn to raspberries

As Tom Adams sees it, there are two main problems in the world related to food.

There are those who don’t have enough of it and there are others that have too much of the wrong stuff.

He’s hoping his startup, nestled near the center of Research Triangle Park, can be a part of changing that equation.

Just over a year old, Pairwise is at the forefront of agriculture technology, creating experimental crops that might one day show up on the shelves at your grocery store.

The company uses CRISPR technology — most famous for its controversial use by a Chinese scientist in an attempt to make two unborn children resistant to HIV — to create plants that are, in the words of Pairwise’s head of trait development, Mike Mann, “more affordable, attainable and also convenient.”

Adams, the company’s CEO, thinks if they can improve produce in slight ways, it will help people “go to the produce aisle instead of the potato chip aisle.”

Those changes, he said, could be as simple as growing cherries without pits, which he described as a barrier for consumers and an impediment to young children.

“There are probably two billion people on Earth that are suffering from diet-related diseases that could benefit from healthier eating,” he said. “And that is (a problem) we would like to hit.”

Mike Mann, Head of Trait Development at Pairwise, a new startup in Durham, N.C., holds a clump of test berries they are working to genetically edit along with other crops at their greenhouses in Research Triangle Park, NC, on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Casey Toth

Pairwise is one of many startup companies delving into the promise of gene editing — several companies in the Triangle are using the technology to treat diseases like cancer. Scott Johnson, the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s leader of agriculture development, reckons that North Carolina has “more scientists working on plant gene editing ... than any other place in the world.”

Adams said his partners chose to put Pairwise in RTP after seriously considering San Diego and St. Louis because of the talent available here. The company is in a former Monsanto building and greenhouse, which the company left for St. Louis in 2015.

What Pairwise has to its advantage is a lot of money, a rapidly growing workforce and the backing of one of the biggest agriculture companies in the world.

Monsanto investment

Pairwise is fueled by an injection of cash from Monsanto, the oft-maligned maker of genetically modified seeds and the herbicide Roundup that was bought by Bayer last year for $63 billion. Pairwise now has 85 workers, with plans to get to 100 by the end of the year. Next month it’s moving some workers to the Golden Belt campus in downtown Durham to make room for that growth.

Adams, who was previously Monsanto’s vice president of global biotechnology, proposed starting Pairwise while still working at the seed giant in St. Louis.

Monsanto viewed it as a promising enough idea that it decided to pay Pairwise $100 million over a five-year period to finance research of gene editing, according to a Reuters report. Additionally, the company’s venture capital arm helped the startup raise $12.7 million. (The fact that Monsanto is now owned by Bayer has had no effect, Adams said.)

In return, Pairwise is researching how to use the technology to alter crops, like corn, soy, wheat, cotton and canola, exclusively for Bayer, according to the companies.

For Bayer, it’s a chance to see what gene editing can do to improve the productivity of commodity crops. If Pairwise is successful, Bayer will get the chance to commercialize the products, likely in about five to 10 years, Adams said.

Gene editing is viewed by many companies as a way to produce non-GMO products that don’t contain foreign DNA from a different species, Reuters reported. A main difference between gene editing and GMOs is that gene editing works like scissors, cutting out genes from DNA, while GMOs usually require them to be inserted from another organism.

The distinction has still been controversial, however.

In the past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made its own ruling on the matter, saying it didn’t plan to regulate gene-edited crops. In a release, the government agency said it doesn’t “regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.”

It’s an argument that Adams subscribes to, adding he thinks there’s a tendency for people to be “nervous about technology in food.”

“I think the more useful conversation is understanding where all the improvements in food have come from ... (since) 10,000 years ago, when people first started domesticating crops,” Adams said. “It’s been a natural process of human selection for particular traits (in plants). Gene editing is a way that we can do that faster, but it doesn’t do anything that can’t happen in nature.”

Raspberries and blackberries

While the company’s contract with Bayer focuses on commodity crops, the company’s other focus is on improving produce that consumers would buy in a grocery store — namely berries.

“We really look at ourselves as a food company, not as a technology company,” Adams said. “Our goal is to make a difference for consumers.”

Where he sees the company making that difference is in berries, specifically by working to make caneberries (i.e. blackberries and raspberries) more widely available.

“Berries are one of the fastest-growing parts of the supermarket,” Adams said. “But we basically put all of our energy into raspberries from Turkey and one variety of blackberries that was developed in the Southeast.”

“But there’s a huge amount of diversity within that group” that aren’t widely distributed, he said. “If we can access some of that diversity, we can get better tasting berries that have more variety for consumers.”

Pairwise has entered a partnership with the USDA, N.C. State University and some other universities to study the genetics of caneberries. It’s an important partnership not just for Pairwise’s future revenue, but also because caneberries have long been neglected compared to blueberries and strawberries, which are vastly more popular.

N.C. State faculty researcher Gina Fernandez said the project is a great opportunity to increase understanding of caneberries.

“There are so many things” we could learn, she said. “We could learn what traits are controlling thorniness ... earliness (to ripen), larger fruits, sugar levels. Getting all this info is just a spectacular opportunity and the fact that Pairwise would share with us is great. Most companies would not share that.”

Adams said blueberries and strawberries have been bred for generations, to the point that they are available year round. That’s not the case for most caneberries.

“A big part of the Pairwise mission is to try to make it easier to make the choice to go to the produce (section),” Adams said. “So, we’re working on things like berries and stone fruit to make them easier and more convenient for people to get.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more.

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