San Diego Agri-Biotech Startup Moves to Challenge Monsanto on its Own Turf

10/2/09

San Diego’s little Cibus Global is preparing to one day take on Monsanto, the Fortune 500 agri-industry colossus and leading producer of genetically engineered seed. The bioscience company last month formed a joint partnership with an agricultural products company based in Tel Aviv to spur development of new strains of crops. High on Cibus’ to-do list is the development of crops resistant to weed killers sold by its new Israeli partner, Makhteshim-Agan. This is the model pioneered by Monsanto, which developed a line of “Roundup Ready” crops that are genetically altered to resist its herbicide, Roundup.

Cibus, a private venture-backed company with just 34 employees, seems more than a bit outmatched by its would-be rival. Monsanto is a multibillion-dollar company whose Roundup Ready strains account for much of the corn, cotton and soy grown in the U.S. But as Bruce noted in his report, Cibus believes that its technology for producing new crop strains is less likely to raise the ire of activists who oppose the dissemination of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Cibus believes its technology—a sort of controlled evolution—will offer a marketing advantage in Europe, where concerns about GMOs have limited the acceptance of modified crops.

Cibus says its technology, dubbed Rapid Trait Development System, or RTDS, uses the natural DNA repair system in plant cells to trigger a genetic change linked to the desired trait. Cibus CEO Keith Walker tells me the company’s technology changes just one letter in a plant’s genetic code. These little mistakes randomly occur all the time in nature, Walker says; yet Cibus says its technology can control the process.

“The traits we introduce in a plant could … Next Page »

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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