Editor’s note: The first article of this series on agricultural startup companies, published in the Aug. 9 issue of Agri-View, featured EIO Diagnostics, New West Genetics and Nutrivert – all of which have received capital and business training from The Yield Lab of St. Louis. The following article features three more startups The Yield Lab is helping. They are RNAgri, Plastomics and Agribody Technologies.
RNAgri focuses on RNA, RNAi
RNAgri, based in St. Louis, is focused on development of products from ribonucleic acid – RNA – and ribonucleic-acid interference – RNAi. Ribonucleic-acid interference can result in decreased production of a protein to achieve a desired trait. Ribonucleic-acid interference isn’t genetic modification and, therefore, is non-genetically modified, according to RNAgri.
John Killmer, CEO of RNAgri, said the company has been developing technology for production of double-stranded ribonucleic acid – dsRNA – that can be used in topical applications for insect and virus control. Those applications could be used by crop growers as well as pest-control companies.
“The technology also could eventually include topical applications that would provide trait-like characteristics without genetic modification,” Killmer said.
RNAi activity can be narrow in scope. For example a product for pest-control companies could target only fire ants and not other ant species. When RNAgri’s technology is more advanced, topical applications could possibly be used to control invasive species, Killmer said.
Farmers would be able to spray ribonucleic acid similar to the way they currently spray other topical products. Seed companies could apply ribonucleic acid to seed.
Times vary on how long a topical would work on a crop and what its shelf life would be.
“Some applications to control insects have lasted several weeks, but this would be dependent on rain and other environmental factors,” Killmer said. “It should be noted that little work has been done on specific ribonucleic-acid formulations. These will be designed to provide rain-fastness — and resistance to other environmental factors — that could lead to degradation. Shelf stability could be comparable to some current pesticides if the product is formulated properly.”
RNAgri is developing products for urban-structural pest control and for the aquaculture industry to control viruses in shrimp. RNAgri is currently in discussions with aquaculture companies.
RNAgri also has a research collaboration with Monsanto. Monsanto is using the startup’s technology to produce ribonucleic acid for research and development of applications for agriculture and bee health.
The Yield Lab has invested $100,000 in RNAgri. The startup also has received $800,000 in funding from BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL. The Missouri Technology Corporation and Helix Fund also have invested in RNAgri.
Plastomics engineers chloroplasts
Plastomics of St. Louis is an agricultural startup attracting the interest of The Yield Lab. Plastomics is using chloroplast engineering to develop crops. It’s focused on stacking multiple genes with new modes-of-action for insect and herbicide resistances.
Plastomics is engineering the chloroplast, the part of a plant cell where photosynthesis occurs. It’s more efficient than techniques focused on a cell’s nucleus, said Sharon Berberich, CEO of Plastomics.
There is a greater number of chloroplasts while there is just one nucleus per cell. And through maternal inheritance, traits are not passed through pollen but rather to the seed, Berberich said.
“This makes the breeding process about two years faster and cheaper,” she said.
Plastomics is developing its technology platform for seed companies. The startup is currently focused on testing insect control in corn. The platform also could be used to develop metabolic pathways to express higher levels of protein in crops.
The company is still developing its platform and is in the proof-of-concept stage.
“We’ll likely know if we’ve been successful by the end of the year,” Berberich said.
Agribody Technologies uses genome-editing
Agribody Technologies Inc. of San Diego has received capital and business training from The Yield Lab. The startup company is focused on combining genome editing with a pair of gene targets in crops to increase shelf life of perishable produce, improve crop tolerance to abiotic stress and disease, and enhance seed yields and biomass.
The company has tested the technology’s performance in alfalfa. Replicated field trials conducted for two years in West Salem, Wisconsin, have shown yield increases of between 20 percent and 45 percent in an elite commercial variety with no loss of quality.
Field trials of bananas as well as greenhouse testing of tomatoes and flowers have shown that shelf life has increased two- to three-fold, said Jerry Feitelson, CEO of Agribody Technologies. The company also is field testing the technology’s performance in potatoes. Laboratory and greenhouse trials of coffee, canola and rice are underway, with other crop research expected to begin soon.
“We expect that genome-editing applications changing activity of our target genes, claimed in our newer U.S. patent applications, will remain unregulated in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Sweden and other ‘GMO-friendly’ jurisdictions,” Feitelson said. “Our seed-company partners could commercialize genome-edited elite varieties as soon as three to four years after research is completed.”
Agribody Technologies will license or co-develop its technology with seed companies, usually in combination with sub-licensing Benson Hill Biosystems’s clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – CRISPR – 3.0 genome-editing technology.