Israeli startup to use gene-editing tools to enhance cannabis seeds

CanBreed aims to sell stable, better-performing seeds to growers globally, using licensed CRISPR-Cas9 tech to create uniform and disease-resistant plants

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

CanBreed CEO and co-founder Ido Margalit at the startup's cannabis R&D site in Givat Chen  (Courtesy)
CanBreed CEO and co-founder Ido Margalit at the startup's cannabis R&D site in Givat Chen (Courtesy)

Israeli startup CanBreed said it has reached a licensing agreement to use gene editing tools to provide cannabis growers with enhanced seeds for the production of medical grade cannabis.

The Givat Chen, Israel-based firm, founded in 2017 by Ido Margalit and Tal Sherman, said it has received a nonexclusive intellectual property licensing agreement to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology from Corteva Agriscience and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which hold the rights to the technology.

CanBreed has developed what it says are “stable” cannabis seeds that will allow farmers to grow cannabis from seeds as opposed to cloning, as it is done now, from branches of the plant that are rooted.

“The cloning of the branches help maintain the uniformity of DNA of the weed,” but as the plant grows, the genes could be expressed differently from those of the mother plant, explained Margalit, who also serves as CEO of the startup.

Illustrative: Cannabis leaves (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

Since cannabis is a medical plant, standardization and uniformity are required, and “using clones does not serve that purpose,” he said. “The only solution to that is growing cannabis from stable seeds.”

The entire agriculture industry, Margalit explained, is based on the use of stable seeds to grow crops, from tomatoes to wheat. “That practice has yet to reach cannabis, and this is what we are doing.”

The company has been able to create stable cannabis seeds by inbreeding the plant with itself, Margalit said. “But just having stable seeds is not enough,” he added. “What the grower has to see are agronomical traits to ensure that they will have the most and highest quality harvest, so they like to see resistance traits in their products, that the plant can be adapted for a certain growth environment. None of those traits exist in cannabis.”

The use of the gene editing tools will enable the firm to create seeds with enhanced traits — making them more resistant to diseases and more suited to grow in greenhouses.

The company expects its stable seeds to be ready for sale by mid-2021, and also expects its first traits to be introduced by the end of 2021, with the introduction of a powdery mildew-resistant cannabis seed. Powdery mildew is a fungus that attacks plants.

“We want to be world leaders in using CRISPR technology for cannabis,” said Margalit. “The idea is to sell stable enhanced cannabis seeds to the entire global market.”

Margalit is an agronomist with an MSc in the Management of Technology from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. He has over 20 years of experience in the Israeli life science industry, and is a former business development manager at Syngenta Seeds. His co-founder Sherman is a plant scientist with MSc and PhD degrees in Plant Science from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Sherman is an expert in molecular biology and plant physiology, and has extensive R&D and plant-breeding management experience as the Stress Project Manager at Syngenta Seeds.

The startup has raised “a few million dollars” to date from angel investors, Margalit said, and employs 13 people at its Givat Chen facility, nine of whom are scientists.

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