The California-based biotech company announced earlier this month that it had established a non-exclusive commercial and research license agreement with Corteva Agriscience, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and DowDuPont’s agriculture division to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tools.
Amfora has been working to develop high-protein strains of multiple feed and food crops for several years.
The interest in developing an agreement to use the Cas-9 technology allows the company to work with a “robust” editing technology, said Lloyd Kunimoto, Amfora CEO. “Gene editing is a rapidly moving field, and, in any new field, the intellectual property landscape is always evolving, but in the case the Cas-9 … Corteva and the Broad really did have a solid patent portfolio that covered the use of Cas-9 to do gene editing,” he added.
“W we know it’s a very useful, robust editing methodology,” he told FeedNavigator. “Now that we’re forcing on doing the editing of crop plants to increase protein content, and we’re starting to develop events that we hope will become commercial events, we wanted to make sure that we had the freedom to operate with the best editing technology that also has a solid IP position.”
An initial focus is developing high protein strain of soybeans, he said. “Soy is the most commercially important and largest source of protein used in animal feed – and it’s also a much more important part of the total diet of farmed fish now,” he added.
Aquaculture and high-protein soy
One factor that limits the use of soybean meal as a protein source in aqua feeds is that it is not as protein dense as an ingredient like fishmeal, said Kunimoto.
“Many of the more valuable farmed seafood species they need a diet that is dense in protein because that mirrors their diet in the wild,” he added.
“By increasing the protein density of soy, it mirrors or mimics the same protein density they would have in the wild,” he said. “We’re working on increasing the protein density of soy so it’s a vegetarian alternative and a more sustainable alternative to harvesting wild-caught fish that are used in feed.”
Providing an alternative protein source for aquaculture is of interest for Amfora because of the rapid expansion taking place in the industry, said Kunimoto. That growth makes it harder for ingredients made from fish like herring or anchovies to meet industry needs while protecting the marine food chain.
“The industry needs a sustainable alternative,” he said. The high-density soybean meal could provide an alternative and is “pretty attractive economically.”
The editing process targets a specific gene and mechanism, he said. The change reduces the amount of some carbohydrates and starch in the meal.
The prototype high-protein soybeans the company has generated produce a meal with a protein density around 60%, however, that could increase as the editing process continues, he said. “At this point, we have prototypes that would produce meal that has about the same density as fishmeal,” he added.
Commercial timeline and costs
Amfora is planning to start feeding trials later this year – first with model species and then with commercial species, said Kunimoto. The work will be done with a range of academic and research partners.
The feed ingredient will be a familiar one for industry members used to working with soybean meal, he said.
But the company is planning to run a “full battery of tests” for several commercial species to gain an understanding of the best ways to incorporate the protein ingredient in a feed formulation.
“We’ll have to understand how our high protein soy ingredient can be used compared to what the other ingredients are,” he said. “The goal [is] launching our first commercial sale in 2024 and a large beta test with a commercial producer in 2023.”
As the production process moves toward commercialization the company is planning to establish a network of farmers to raise the specialty soybean crop, which can be processed into meal and oil products, he said.
There also is an interest in developing relationships with integrated aquaculture producers who generate their own feed and feed manufacturers.
“The cost of producing commodity soy is extremely low, which is one of the reasons it's so widely used … our cost will be higher than that because we’re going to have to pay our growers, and the processor to segregate our crop from the commodity crop in order to have the high-density meal that’s not mixed with the normal commodity meal.”
However, there can be a wide price difference between soybean meal and fishmeal, he said.
"There’s a huge margin that’s potentially available, and we’ll have to see what price point provides a sufficiently attractive value proposition to our customers – but there’s huge range between the cost of commodity soy and the cost of fishmeal and the pricing will be somewhere in that range.”
Regulation and gene editing
Whether gene-edited crops are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or not depends on the regulatory system of individual countries, said Kunimoto.
“The regulatory framework for editing is also evolving,” he added.
“In the US, clearly edited crops are not regulated at all and certainly not regulated as GMO crops,” he said. “Whereas in other parts of the world, certain countries have taken the view that edited crops are comparable and should be regulated in a comparable manner to GMO crops.”
However, the regulatory situation is not considered limiting to the work that Amfora is doing, he said.