Bayer buys more green tech from Durham’s Pairwise

Millions of consumers know Bayer as the aspirin company. Some even know it’s the Alka-Seltzer company. Investors know it as the German pharmaceutical, life sciences and agricultural giant that bought Monsanto in 2018.

Now Bayer is buying a bigger bite of plant technology developed by Pairwise, a North Carolina gene-based ag tech company, to expand its reach into the grocery food chain.

The two companies have inked an exclusive product licensing agreement that lets Bayer develop and commercialize 10 varieties of salad greens invented by Pairwise using the Durham company’s Fulcrum CRISPR gene editing technology. The deal also allows Bayer to develop and breed for new varieties with the Pairwise technology.Pairwise

The companies won’t disclose financial terms of the agreement, but it represents a big boost to the Pairwise buy-in from Bayer. In 2018, Bayer and Pairwise entered a five-year, multi-million-dollar collaboration for corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and canola. The collaboration resulted in 27 novel traits being transferred into Bayer’s testing programs, including edited corn phenotypes with a 20 % increase in kernel row numbers.

In 2023, Bayer and Pairwise entered another five-year, multi-million-dollar agreement focused on optimizing and enhancing gene-edited short-stature corn for future use in Bayer’s Preceon Smart Corn System. The shorter corn is being developed to better withstand high winds and other challenges farmers face due to climate change.

CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a powerful and precise genome editing tool originally developed to use short repetitions of DNA sequences as a natural method to combat viruses.

Pairwise’s Fulcrum gene editing technology makes genetic changes that can improve the taste, convenience and shelf life of foods. It has led to new varieties of leafy greens, berries, and cherries, and can also help growers increase yields, simplify harvesting and lengthen seasonal availability of crops.

Pairwise leafy greens
Pairwise's mustard plants. -Photo from Pairwise

The Pairwise process involves identifying genes associated with desired traits. It then uses its gene editing tools to breed “new and improved” versions of the plant. It’s not the same as developing genetically modified, or GMO, plants. The edited product does not contain any “foreign” DNA.

“We’re extremely proud to have introduced the first CRISPR food in North America last year, demonstrating our ability to deliver a unique product that people want to buy,” said Tom Adams, Pairwise co-founder and CEO. “Bayer is a strong partner for this licensing agreement with considerable market reach that we feel can extend the impact and success of our first consumer product widely into the marketplace.”

The leafy greens blend Bayer will distribute is a mixture of mustard green varieties that Pairwise edited. Mustard greens are highly nutritious low-calorie, high-fiber “superfoods” that contain important vitamins and minerals and many valuable micronutrients. They come from the mustard plant (Brassica juncea), part of the Brassica genus of vegetables, which also includes kale, collard greens, broccoli, and cauliflower. Traditional mustard greens are known for their strong bitter, spicy flavor.

“By dialing down the wasabi-like flavor of the raw leaves, Pairwise created a new product for consumers who prefer a less-pungent taste but still want the nutrition of fresh mustard greens,” Pairwise explained in a news release announcing the Bayer collaboration. 

“We are excited by the potential for these products developed by Pairwise as we bring them forward to create a new category of nutritious and great-tasting leafy greens,” said J.D. Rossouw, head of vegetables research & development at Bayer’s crop science division.

Pairwise has about 110 employees, most on the Golden Belt campus in Durham and some at a research site in Research Triangle Park.

The company was founded in 2017 by Adams and Haven Baker, chief business officer. Scientific co-founders include J. Keith Joung, M.D., Ph.D., lead translator at Arena BioWorks; David Liu, Ph.D., director of the Merkin Institute of Transformative Technologies in Healthcare and vice chair of the faculty at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT; and Feng Zhang, Ph.D., a McGovern Investigator and a professor at MIT.

The company’s crop trait development platform was initially based on gene-editing technologies that were originally licensed from Harvard University.  Backed by Deerfield, Aliment Capital, Leaps by Bayer, and Temasek, Pairwise raised $90 million in a successful series B funding round in February 2021, which brought its total fundraising to $115 million.

Pairwise also announced in early June that it has granted a full technology license to its Fulcrum platform to a St. Louis ag tech company, Solis Agrosciences. And in a separate news release, also in early June, Pairwise disclosed that it has developed the world’s first seedless, thornless blackberry using the Fulcrum technology.

“We expect that this trait will not only transform the blackberry market, but it also lays the groundwork for accelerated progress in removing seeds and pits in many other fruits such as cherries,” said Ryan Bartlett, Pairwise chief technology officer.

A Pairwise spokesperson said it will likely be a few years of field trials and development before consumers will have access to the new seedless blackberry. But one of the key benefits of the Pairwise technology is that it can compress that timeline to a few years, versus traditional breeding that can require decades to achieve this kind of specialized trait, if at all. 

Jim Shamp, NCBiotech Writer
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