Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization said last week that it has signed an agreement to provide Bayer CropScience with a worldwide (except Australia) license to use its RNAi technology in developing and selling selected crop plant varieties. Aside from being the first time CSIRO has licensed the technology to a major agro-biotechnology firm, the deal marks the first of any RNAi licensing arrangement the organization has entered since it settled a dispute with Benitec.
The technology, termed DNA-directed RNAi (ddRNAi), involves the knocking down of gene expression using DNA that transcribes double-stranded RNA, one strand of which has a sequence complementary to that of the target gene. It was developed by former CSIRO researcher Mick Graham, who is now Benitec’s principal research scientist. Although the first patent on the use of ddRNAi in animals wasn’t filed until Graham left CSIRO, the organization had argued in a battle over the ownership of the technology that his later work was simply an extension of what he had been doing as a CSIRO employee.
Ultimately, Benitec and CSIRO reached a settlement, under which CSIRO holds the exclusive rights to the technology for all applications in animals (other than humans), plants, and insects. Benitec maintains the full rights to the ddRNAi technology for all applications in humans (see RNAi News, 12/12/2003).
With the dispute resolved, CSIRO was free to pursue development and licensing programs with the ddRNAi technology in the areas within its focus, which it has done with the Bayer CropScience deal. Specific terms of the arrangement were not disclosed, although TJ Higgins, deputy chief of CSIRO Plant Industries, noted that his organization retains the rights to the technology in Australia.
Higgins said that up until the Bayer CropScience deal, CSIRO had primarily been licensing the ddRNAi technology to academic institutions, partly because “one of the main uses of this technology is … in basic science — understanding how genes work.
“Most of the applications we see as a research organization [are] really in understanding gene expression,” he told RNAi News. However, “the fact that Bayer has taken out a license is an indication to us that they see some commercial uses for it, as well.”
Higgins noted that commercial applications for the technology could include the manipulation of oils in oil seed crops “so that we can produce high levels of oleic acid,” a fatty acid found in olive oil reputed to confer health benefits, “or reduce the levels of palmitic acid,” an unhealthy saturated fatty acid.
“Clearly, [the technology] has potential in pathways that could be very, very useful,” he said, noting, however, that near-term applications are likely to be limited to “understanding the genomes” of plants.
Tony Arioli, a research manager at Bayer CropScience, told RNAi News that his company has long used different types of gene silencing approaches in trying to develop new plant varieties, but these are based on “antisense-type technology” and some were limited to use in only specific plants.
“[The] double-stranded RNAi technology from CSIRO is much broader — there’re a wider variety of phenotypes” that can be manipulated, he said. “This sort of technology is the next step forward, really.”
Arioli said that at first, Bayer CropScience’s main use for the ddRNAi technology will be as a research tool in plant seeds. “The idea would be to use RNAi to try and discover more quickly genes and processes that are important for plant quality and productivity.”
He noted that the technology may not necessarily be used to develop transgenic plants, but that Bayer CropScience might rather “identify the gene in plants that has an impact on [a specific] phenotype, and then potentially go through more conventional means of plant breeding to enhance the [plant’s] productivity.”
A decision on whether the ddRNAi technology will be used only at the research level “to understand the biology of a plant and improve it,” or would be used to genetically modify plants directly, would “ultimately rest on what the trait is” and how amenable it is to different modification approaches, Arioli added.
He declined to comment on which crops Bayer CropScience will apply the ddRNAi technology to, but said that the company “has interests in crops such as cotton and canola.”