Scientists Use Gene Editing to Make Soybeans More Like Olives

Calyxt’s new soybean variety is higher in oleic acid and lower in linoleic acid and saturated fatty acids than other soybean varieties.

By Teresa Bergen
Dec. 27, 2017 08:53 UTC

A new gene-edit­ing tech­nique is instill­ing hope among soy­bean farm­ers. Calyxt, a Minneapolis-based startup, promises its mod­i­fi­ca­tions can keep the trans fats out of soy­beans, mak­ing them health­ier like olive oil. However, oppo­nents of GMOs aren’t cel­e­brat­ing.

Soybean oil is high in linoleic acid, which means it goes ran­cid fast. So man­u­fac­tur­ers have long been par­tially hydro­genat­ing their oil to extend shelf life and improve fry­ing capa­bil­ity. Now that leg­is­la­tion has banned the trans fats caused by par­tially hydro­genated oil, soy­bean proces­sors are look­ing for alter­na­tives. This new gene-edit­ing tech­nique means that it will be shelf-sta­ble with­out hav­ing to be hydro­genated.

Calyxt’s new soy­bean vari­ety is higher in oleic acid and lower in linoleic acid and sat­u­rated fatty acids than other soy­bean vari­eties. These vari­a­tions increase shelf life up to five times longer, and increase fry-life three­fold, with no need for hydro­gena­tion. Calyxt hopes to begin com­mer­cial sales in 2018.

Calyxt is using a gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy called TALEN to alter sin­gle genes within plants. The three approaches they can use are to insert cor­rect or knock out a gene. The com­pany likens it to using spell check to iden­tify and cor­rect an error in a word. Because gene-edit­ing is so spe­cific and only rearranges rather than adding a for­eign gene to a plants’ exist­ing DNA, the USDA has decided not to reg­u­late it. This enables Calyxt to avoid the usual long waits of the reg­u­la­tory process.

Calyxt presents its tech­nol­ogy as a way to decrease trans fat, aller­gens and toxic com­pounds in foods while increas­ing dietary fibers, nutri­ents, vit­a­min con­tent and plant pro­teins. It also promises farmer-friendly traits, such as increased yield, her­bi­cide tol­er­ance and resis­tance to insects and dis­ease. But Calyx empha­sizes that unlike tra­di­tional GMO devel­op­ment, it’s putting health­ier food needs of the con­sumer above farmer needs. While soy­bean oil is the far­thest along in Calyxt’s devel­op­ment stages, they’re also using the gene-split­ting tech­nique on wheat, pota­toes, alfalfa and canola oil.

The USDA green-lighted the first gene-edited crops in April 2016, start­ing with a mush­room that resists turn­ing brown. But the European Union is slower to accept any kind of GMOs, how­ever allegedly benign. French trade unions and NGOs have argued that gene-edit­ing tools are the first step down a slip­pery slope lead­ing to many new plants with uncer­tain envi­ron­men­tal impacts.

Will the new, health­ier soy­bean oil adversely affect olive pro­duc­ers? Joanne Lacina, pres­i­dent of the online shop Olive Oil Lovers, isn’t wor­ried. I don’t believe soy oil can ever replace olive oil in any sig­nif­i­cant way,” she said. Extra vir­gin olive oil is quite lit­er­ally the fruit juice of an olive. A pro­ducer picks the olives off the tree, imme­di­ately trans­ports them to the mill where they are crushed and the juice is extracted. Two hours later you can be eat­ing fresh oil from the olives you just picked.”

Soy oil, she pointed out, is extracted at high tem­per­a­tures using petro­leum-derived sol­vents, degummed, deodor­ized and bleached. A good extra vir­gin olive oil is so deli­cious you can hap­pily eat it with just bread alone. I have yet to meet some­one who pro­claims they eat soy oil because they love the way it tastes.”


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