PlantArcBio, which has developed a new approach for genetic improvement of plants, today announced a $3 million financing round and cooperation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the framework of the trial, the university will test the effect of the genes discovered by the company on plants' drought tolerance.
PlantArcBio was founded by CEO Dror Shalitin, who worked at Evogene Ltd. (TASE:EVGN), a company with a $75 million market cap. PlantArcBio has the same aim as Evogene - to improve the characteristics of plants through genetic research - but its method is different. While Evogene discovers genes by computer and applies them in nature, PlantArcBio discovers unknown genes in nature.
The company's unique technology enables it to detect a "soup" of genes in environments such as an arid desert that help various organisms (plants, animals, fungus, and viruses) survive in that region. When the company collects genes from the earth or a water source in a region, it is not interested in which animal or plant those genes originally come from.
What does interest the company is which genes appear frequently in the desert, but are unique to it and do not appear in other environments. These genes have a better chance of being genes that help plants survive dry conditions. After identifying these genes, the genes are put into the target plants. The technological method developed by the company enables it to select a single gene from the "soup" for each plant. The genetically engineered plant is then allowed to grow in a dry climate. Those that survive probably contain the desired gene.
This approach can be compared to the high throughput screening used to discover drugs by testing thousands of molecules from a prepared library of molecules on thousands of cell samples, in contrast to the newer and ostensibly more sophisticated, logical and economical approach of designing drugs by computer. Most currently existing drugs, however, came from the high throughput trial and error method. By analogy, Evogene uses the computer design method, while PlantArcBio uses the high throughput method.
"Up until now, it was impossible to insert such quantities of genes into plants," Shalitin says. "We can insert millions of different genes, each one into a target plant, and see what happens."
PlantArcBio, founded in 2014, has already discovered a number of such genes. The agreement with the University of Wisconsin-Madison is for testing the effect of the genes on soybeans in a large field trial. These genes have already shown good results in greenhouse trials in Israel with corn and soybeans, among other things.
The company's goal is to sign development agreements for these genes with large companies. Shalitin says that negotiations are currently underway for agreements of this type.
Global warming has made drought tolerance an even more important characteristic in recent years. PlantArcBio quotes studies by the University of Wisconsin-Madison that found that US soybean crop yields fell by 2.4% for each one-degree rise in temperature.
"Globes": Your method is genetic engineering. Isn't this being eliminated by public opposition?
Shalitin: "Most of today's leading crops - soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola - are genetically engineered. At the same time, if it becomes necessary, we can use RNA methods on the genes we have discovered, rather than genetic engineering."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 9, 2018
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