What Drives Us to Innovate: Feeding a growing population is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. According to the FAO, food production must increase 50% globally and 200% in developing countries by 2030. We believe that Plastomics’ technology can make a significant contribution to reach that goal by improving the way that biotechnology is used to deliver higher-yielding seeds to the farmers who are feeding the planet.
The products created during the first phase of the biotech revolution have helped growers produce more food than ever before with significantly less environmental impact. However, the technologies used to create these products were developed more than 20 years ago and are now outdated, unable to support the complex trait needs of today’s farmers.
Plastomics’ trait delivery platform provides solutions for many current biotech seed industry challenges: multi-trait products with complex trait integration and breeding programs, increasing pest resistance development requiring higher trait dose and new modes of action, and the inability to expand the reach of biotech traits to crops with outcrossing concerns. Providing solutions to these challenges will give seed companies a valuable tool to help growers meet the nutritional needs of a growing population.
Historically, farmers have improved wild plants by breeding together seeds with desirable characteristics - “traits”. Just like in humans, these traits are passed on, from generation to generation, through genes. Plant scientists have learned how to identify and work with genes to generate desirable traits, such as traits that can create resistance to certain insects, diseases, or chemicals. By inserting specific genes into plants, they provide the plant with “direction” on how to create the biological processes to protect itself. Today, this is done by inserting genes into the nucleus of the plant cells, where the DNA of the cell exists. This DNA contains all of the instructions for how the cell makes proteins. By inserting new DNA (or set of instructions) into the nucleus, the cell can make new proteins to protect itself from insects and disease.
Yes, seed produced using the Plastomics chloroplast transformation approach will be considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs). After 25 years of broad use around the globe, their benefits and safety have been well demonstrated. The Plastomics approach will only enhance these benefits. More questions about GMOs are thoroughly answered at GMO Answers.
The chloroplast is responsible for harnessing energy from the sun to help the plant grow. There are a lot of chloroplasts in each cell to capture as much of the energy from the sun as possible. While the chloroplasts are critical, they don’t have as many jobs as the nucleus and thus their circuitry is much simpler than the nucleus. This gives them room to take on more work. So, introducing traits in the chloroplast instead of the nucleus accomplishes multiple things. First, traits are present in much higher trait concentrations because there are so many more chloroplasts, and many more traits can fit in the chloroplast than the nucleus. Higher trait concentration creates the potential for better pest control with more modes of action (ways that the plants can control the pests). Another important reason that introduction into the chloroplast makes a lot of sense is that traits in the chloroplast are only passed on through the maternal side of the plant. That means newly introduced traits pass on to all the offspring, not just some offspring so it’s faster and easier for seed companies to develop new products. Lastly, none of the newly introduced genes end up in pollen (from the male side of the plant). So, the trait only goes where you want it and can’t move into other plants.
A plant cell contains only one nucleus but has hundreds of chloroplasts. Because of the sheer number of chloroplasts there are many, many more copies of the trait in the plant cell. This higher concentration of the trait allows the plant to mount a stronger defense to withstand the pressure of insects and diseases. Less crop damage from insects and diseases creates higher yields for growers.
When traits are present in the plant at higher concentrations, it also makes it more difficult for the insect or disease to develop resistance to a trait. Resistance develops when a trait isn’t strong enough to kill all the insects and those surviving insects continue to live in the grower’s field. The populations of these resistant insects increase and soon the trait is unable to provide control of the resistant population. Growers lose yield and/or must go back to using chemicals to control the insects on their crops. Higher concentration of traits in chloroplasts will allow fewer pests to survive, providing a more durable and environmentally sustainable solution for seed companies and growers.
Chloroplast introduction of traits is more accurate than nuclear introduction and the increased accuracy makes it easier to develop high performance crops for growers. When scientists know exactly where the trait will be located in the plant cell, it allows for a faster and simpler way to introduce multiple traits into the plant and to breed those traits into seeds for growers around the world. The natural biological properties of the chloroplast speed up product development, breeding and seed production, and increase the stability of inserted traits. That means that seed companies and growers will have confidence that the trait will work season after season.
The benefits of agricultural biotechnology cannot be understated, but plant scientists are always looking for ways to improve agricultural sustainability for growers and consumers. #1: Some insect pests and weeds have developed resistance to the protein signals generated by plants. Plastomics will make these protein signals stronger and more difficult to overcome, reducing the ability for resistance to develop. #2: Seed companies are lacking new traits to provide new signals of control and certain traits cannot be introduced in the nucleus. These traits can be introduced in the chloroplast, giving growers new “modes of action” to further confuse pests and provide for longer term, more sustainable control. #3: Introduction via the chloroplast is precise. Nuclear traits end up being passed on by both the male and female parts of the plant, so they end up in the pollen of the plant. When the pollen travels in the air, sometimes it can move to other crops that weren’t intended to be biotech. Chloroplast traits aren’t in the pollen, so the traits stay in the plant where you want them, without the ability to move to other plants. This has enhanced sustainability benefits for growers and consumers alike.
During breeding, or multiplication of seeds, chloroplast traits are inherited in a different way than those in the nucleus. The nuclear traits are passed on in both pollen and seed. Chloroplast traits are passed on in the seed alone, reducing the breeding timeline needed to have all the offspring be the same. Plastomics’ chloroplast engineering platform can shorten biotechnology product development and commercialization by up to two years, saving money on product development costs and putting new products into the hands of growers more quickly.
Regulatory agencies are concerned about the possibility of pollen drift – the transfer of the biotech trait to non-biotech crops, weeds and native plants via cross-pollination. Cross pollination can occur with nuclear introduction because the traits end up in the pollen of the plant. Traits inserted into the chloroplast are naturally contained in the plant because the chloroplasts are inherited only in the seed, not the pollen. Alleviating this concern of regulators is an advantage of chloroplast introduction.
There are crops that haven’t been enhanced with biotechnology because of concerns about the ability of traits to travel to other plants via pollen drift. Pollen drift is the transfer of the biotech trait to non-biotech crops, weeds and native plants via cross-pollination. Cross pollination can occur with nuclear introduction because the traits end up in the pollen of the plant. There are crops like sorghum and rice that more readily cross-pollinate and therefore regulators have been reluctant to allow the commercial introduction of insect and herbicide tolerance traits into those crops. Because traits inserted into the chloroplast are naturally contained and not transferred via pollination, Plastomics has the unique ability to potentially develop weed and insect resistance for these important crops.