Next biotech plants: new traits, crops, developers and technologies for addressing global challenges

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Abstract or Summary

Most of the genetically modified (GM) plants currently commercialized encompass a handful of crop species (soybean, corn, cotton and canola) with agronomic characters (traits) directed against some biotic stresses (pest resistance, herbicide tolerance or both) and created by multinational companies. The same crops with agronomic traits already on the market today will continue to be commercialized, but there will be also a wider range of species with combined traits. The timeframe anticipated for market release of the next biotech plants will not only depend on science progress in research and development (R&D) in laboratories and fields, but also primarily on how demanding regulatory requirements are in countries where marketing approvals are pending. Regulatory constraints, including environmental and health impact assessments, have increased significantly in the past decades, delaying approvals and increasing their costs. This has sometimes discouraged public research entities and small and medium size plant breeding companies from using biotechnology and given preference to other technologies, not as stringently regulated. Nevertheless, R&D programs are flourishing in developing countries, boosted by the necessity to meet the global challenges that are food security of a booming world population while mitigating climate change impacts. Biotechnology is an instrument at the service of these imperatives and a wide variety of plants are currently tested for their high yield despite biotic and abiotic stresses. Many plants with higher water or nitrogen use efficiency, tolerant to cold, salinity or water submergence are being developed. Food security is not only a question of quantity but also of quality of agricultural and food products, to be available and accessible for the ones who need it the most. Many biotech plants (especially staple food) are therefore being developed with nutritional traits, such as biofortification in vitamins and metals. The main international seed companies continue to be the largest investors in plant biotechnology R&D, and often collaborate in the developing world with public institutions, private entities and philanthropic organizations. These partnerships are particularly present in Africa. In developed countries, plant biotechnology is also used for non-food purposes, such as the pharmaceutical, biofuel, starch, paper and textile industries. For example, plants are modified to specifically produce molecules with therapeutic uses, or with an improved biomass conversion efficiency, or producing larger volumes of feedstocks for biofuels. Various plant breeding technologies are now used in the entire spectrum of plant biotechnology: transgenesis producing proteins or RNAi. Cisgenesis (transgenes isolated from a crossable donor plant) and intragenesis (transgenes originate from the same species or a crossable species), null segregants are also used. To date, the next generation precision gene editing tools are developed in basic research. They include: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), transcription activator-like effects nucleases (TALENs) and zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN).

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