Could we cut crop-to-market time in half? The secret may lie in chloroplasts. BioFuels Digest February 22, 2018

February 22, 2018 

Chloroplasts are in the news this week because St. Louis-based TechAccel made a science advancement investment with Plastomics, a biotechnology startup making better crops through chloroplast engineering.

Here’s the key

Chloroplast engineering is a fast, efficient, and more predictable way to introduce multiple traits into important crops that can also reduce time to market. New crops with multiple trait solutions can be delivered faster to farmers using Plastomics’ technology.

As TechAccel CTO Brad Fabbri explained to The Digest,  “a major seed company may have 20-30 or more varieties of corn that have the same transgenic tech package, and it turns out that if you get more and more of these elements in the nucleus you have to carry along, it becomes very challenging to move as a unit into all the SKUs. It becomes expensive and time-consuming even with all the tools we have today. if you could put things in the chloroplast and stack the traits there, it makes the moving of the stack more trivial. It’s one step trait integration – and it can dramatically reduce cost of goods to produce seeds and the time to go to market.

How much advantage is here? With a single transgene in the crop, probably not much. But in a varietal with a stack of ten traits, say five on the one side and five on the other to make the hybrid, Fabbri estimates that the time savings would be measured in years — perhaps as much as 2-4 years.

It’s not idle science. According to TechAccel, Monsanto and Dow already have smart stacks with up to 10 transgenic traits, and Fabbri says that this will continue to be a trend, and it is going to become a major issue to take all those traits and put them into all the plant varietals they want to sell.

Think of it like a traffic bottleneck, if you will — a chokepoint that limits innovation. Companies want to pursue more and more traits and more and more customized, targeted varietals. This technology could eliminate the material time-drag in getting all those traits into all those varietals. Bringing the future, faster. Allowing farmers to intensify agriculture and profitability — to the benefit of their food, fuel and feed customers.

But there’s an added benefit as well.

“In chloroplast vs nuclear engineering,” Fabbri added, “there’s a material difference when it comes to inheritance. Usually, you have to have typical sexual reproduction via pollination that produces a seed. But with chloroplasts and mitochondria all the DNA comes from the female and none from the pollen, the male. So, if you are worried about pollen drift, and if traits are expressed in a chloroplast, you don’t have that risk.”

Perhaps the best-loved company out there doing advanced gene stacking is Chromatin, and this slide illustrates some of the benefits, although Chromatin is focusing on the nucleus rather than the chloroplast.

The Plastomics backstory

Founded in 2016, Plastomics recently announced the closing of an early round of seed funding with investments from BioGenerator and The Yield Lab, both St. Louis-based investors.

The target of this particular investment

TechAccel’s investment will fund a science advancement initiative designed to accelerate the development of Plastomics’ technology and a new chloroplast-expressed insect control trait collaboration currently in development.

“We are excited to work with TechAccel in expanding our trait development pipeline,” said Jeffrey Staub, Ph.D., Founder and Chief Science Officer of Plastomics. “This new insect control trait will greatly benefit from the high dosage and increased efficacy that our chloroplast engineering platform provides.”

The Chloroplast backstory

If man’s best friend is the dog, the cell’s best friend is an organelle called a chloroplast. It’s a separate being in many ways, with its own DNA — thought to have evolved from a single bacterium that was captured and encased by some ancient single-celled ancestor of ours hundreds of millions of years ago. Every cell has departments, encased by membranes, and the most independent of all the silos are the chloroplasts. The term comes from the Greek and it means, “making it green” — sort of anthem for our time.

Today, there are as many up to 100 different chloroplasts living inside plant and algae cells, and they take care of photosynthesis, fatty acid synthesis, some amino acid synthesis and take charge of a plant’s immune response. Important stuff for the plant, and responsible for the very oxygen that you breathe as you read this.

So, plant cells depend on our chloroplasts and they depend on plant cells; its one of the most important symbiotic relationships in all of biology.

The TechAccel backstory

TechAccel is a technology and venture development organization focused in agriculture and animal health. Founded in 2014, it sources, invests in and acquires early-stage innovations. Through collaborations with universities and research institutions, TechAccel conducts advancement and de-risking research and development to ready technologies for commercialization.

The Bottom Line

Interesting that companies like TechAccel are popping up with very specific science targets to provide directed investment into emerging companies. Something that perhaps strategics might have pursued through Joint Development Agreements in an earlier day. But strategics are distracted and cutting costs at the moment with all the mega-mergers — Dow and DuPont, Syngenta and ChemChina, Bayer and Monsanto, and more to come.

You might see a day when the majors are more specialized in very late-stage development challenges, such as regulatory or marketing — focusing more and more on externalizing early-stage innovation, which opens up a gap in highly targeted investment that venture capitalists (investing in the entire company) may not be able to perfectly fill, since they invest in entire companies rather than in specific developments.

At the same time, there’a a monumental efficiency in replacing the JDA — which might confer an exclusive science advance or time or regional advantage to a single company partner that may not be able to foresee if it can ultimately take full advantage of that advance — because of changes in strategic direction or in the economics or independence of the larger partner.

In the new model, we may see these highly targeted investments being funded by parties that have the resources and knowledge base comparable to a strategic, but more flexibility and freedom to commercialize for the innovator on the back end — unglued from the exclusivities that a JDA traditionally requires.

Now, that’s symbiotic in its own way as well — TechAccel benefits from the liberation it provides, liberty to innovate on the front end and commercialize more rapidly on the back end. It’s not entirely different, if you think about it, from adding traits to the chloroplast instead of the nucleus. In both cases, you have quite a bit of innovation on the front end, and a faster and more explosive market-entry on the back.