By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON -- AgriBioTech Inc. and Kimeragen Inc. have teamed up to develop enhanced turf grass and forage seed products, using Kimeragen's "precise genetic surgery" technology.

AgriBioTech will use its exclusive license for the technology to develop grasses for the 25 million acres of turf in the U.S., as well as forage crops such as alfalfa, clover and other grasses.

"Together, these two areas represent the biggest seed market in the United States in terms of acres planted," said Tom Rice, vice president and director of research for Henderson, Nev.-based AgriBioTech. "Kimeragen's technology is a targeted, completely controlled process. It's a good alternative to other genetic engineering methods."

The companies would not disclose specific terms of the agreement, which provides AgriBioTech with the exclusive license to the technology for the turf grass and forage seed applications. Newtown, Pa.-based Kimeragen received a patent for certain aspects of the technology in October 1996, and was recently issued another patent. AgriBioTech's license extends for the life of the patents involved. That license, however, is subject to two previous non-exclusive licenses.

Kimeragen's genetic-surgery technology, referred to as chimeraplasty, uses a living cell's own DNA repair mechanisms to make specific changes in a cell's DNA. The technique deploys a synthetic double-helix molecule of DNA and RNA strands, with their sequence designed to match the target sequence but with one exception: it introduces a single mismatch.

That error triggers the cell's DNA repair system to excise the errant base and replace it with a matching base. In effect, the synthetic sequence, called a chimeraplast, rewrites the cell's genome.

Once the desired change has been made in a plant cell, the modified cell is grown into a full plant that contains the new trait, which is passed to all subsequent generations through the seed.

A potential use for chimeraplasty in crop products would entail using the technique to knock out the lignin gene, Rice said. Lignin is cellulose plant structure that provides rigidity to the plant and binds essential nutrients in a way that makes them unavailable to animals who are feeding on the plants.

Rice said the companies may try to formulate forage crops with altered lignin genes that allow the plants to produce less lignin and free up more nutrients for animals feeding on them.

The privately held Kimeragen is developing chimeraplasty not only for crop applications, but as a means to create pharmaceuticals to repair genetic abnormalities causing human diseases; for industrial applications to enhance genetic traits in other plants; and as part of genomic and transgenic animal technologies.

In March, the company reported researchers successfully used chimeraplasty to cause hemophilia B in mice, by knocking out the Factor IX clotting factor in those animals. The researchers are hoping eventually to use the technology to treat humans suffering from hemophilia (See BioWorld Today, March 4, 1998, p. 1.)

Kimeragen also is exploring ways to create antimicrobial therapies that would specifically target bacteria.

AgriBioTech's stock (NASDAQ:ABTX) closed Wednesday at $13.25, up $0.812. *