Vegging out in Malibu

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Remember square tomatoes? Back a couple of decades when the possibility of genetically altering plants was getting off the ground, they were touted as an economic breakthrough; more could be packed in a shipping carton.

Well, that never happened (except experimentally), but genetically re-engineering plants has become a huge industry today. At present, more than 30 percent of all crops grown in North America are genetically modified, and most experts estimate that figure will be close to 100 percent in a decade.

Last week, the University of California and Ceres, Inc., a 2-year-old plant genetics company that rents space in a wing of Malibu’s HRL Laboratories, announced that Ceres had allocated $5.75 million to support plant molecular biology at four U.C. campuses and establish a Plant Genomics Technology Center at U.C.L.A.

According to Dr. Richard Flavell, the company’s chief scientific officer, “At one time, when you talked to farmers and plant breeders, you’d get a long list of plant attributes they wanted: disease and drought resistance; crop yield, which has many components; better performance on a variety of soils; product shipability, plus better quality of what’s being eaten. That list remains today. But what has changed with the accumulation of years of knowledge, we now know something about the genetic control of these targets to improve crops.”

Companies like Ceres (named for the Roman goddess of agriculture) and Monsanto (the giant in the industry) add certain genes whose attributes they know through experimentation to the 25,000 to 50,000 genes already in a plant. “The technology to do this was established in several laboratories by 1982,” Flavell says. The process wasn’t easy then or now, nor is explaining it to a lay person. “Scientists all over the world these days have pieces of genetic information that we call a gene in pure chemical form,” Flavell adds. “What we’ve learned to do over the past 20 years is how to get that piece of information inside a plant cell, and then you do a bit of gardening to grow a whole plant from that one cell. We can test if every cell in the plant has the new gene built into it and see what the gene has done. Then you sift through a large number of experiments to find the one that is more resistant to disease or whatever you’re seeking.”

“The offspring will then multiply like the natural plant,” adds Dr. Mark Vaeck, vice president of operations at Ceres. Lest anyone worry about a possible mutation like Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors,” or something out of the 1980 film “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” Vaeck explains: “It’s an attractive process that adds needed attributes to something that is already successful; the end product is still a normal plant but one which, for example, might not require pesticides to protect it from insects.”

“And this technology can do wonderful things with ornamentals,” Flavell adds. “Some people in New Zealand have told me they almost have a blue rose; they haven’t got the gene combination quite right yet, but it’s on the way.”

So, how do you turn this into a business? “Either we sell the seed ourselves,” Vaeck says, “or we may provide genes that other companies will take, do the engineering and sell the product.”

“A company like Pioneer, the large corn seed company, might not have done all the experimenting to find all the genes that might be most useful today,” Flavell adds, “so they’d look to university laboratories or companies like ours. If we have something they want for a new corn strain for the farmers of Iowa, they would buy it from us.”

Protecting the research is fairly sophisticated (the genes can be patented), but figuring out what to charge isn’t too easy. “You have to make your calculations based on the economic advantage of this new variety,” Vaeck says. “You can calculate an average of what the farmer will gain from using the new variety and say, ‘OK, what will he be willing to pay for that gain?’ Maybe it will be 50 percent, but you can’t generalize.” If only the gene is sold to a seed company and they do the subsequent work, “perhaps we will get a share of their share,” Vaeck adds.

Founded by Malibu resident and CEO Walter De Logi at the suggestion of Robert B. Goldberg, a U.C.L.A. professor of cell, molecular and developmental biology, Ceres rented its 25,000-square-foot laboratory at HRL in August. Since it started, the company has raised $55 million and hired some 70 employees; given the youth of the industry, it’s not surprising that nearly half of them are women, most of them are young and many are in their first job.

“It’s a fledgling industry whose time has come,” Flavell says. “We know that the demands on the farmer these days are not just for bigger crops, although to maintain the present standard of living, we are going to have to double crop production in the next 25 years. We have to look after the environment, too; if you’re not going to spray more chemicals, if you are going to provide the healthiest food you can, there are a lot of targets more important than a square tomato that can be addressed by genetics. Politics and money have a lot to do with it; it isn’t just science. But we do know that the answer lies with bright people developing some really interesting genes that can be put to good use in the agricultural world.”