Historical perspective of Agricultural Genetics

Advances in plant genetics have provided new knowledge and technologies needed to address global food security. Millions of lives rely on crop genetic improvements keeping pace with the growing global population, changing climate, and shrinking environmental resources. Twenty-six countries (21 developing and 5 industrialized countries) planted 191.7 million hectares of biotech (i.e. genetically modified) crops, which added 1.9 million hectares to the record of plantings in 2017 (http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/54/). Biotech crop plantings have increased ~113-fold since 1996, with an accumulated area of 2.5 billion hectares, showing that biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the world.

It is useful to segment the genetic enhancements in plants along two lines: protective and productive.

Traditionally, protective traits have insulated the plant from stresses, both biotic (pathogen based) and abiotic (environmental stress such as drought).

Well-known examples of protective genetic modulation include:

— Corn and cotton have been genetically engineered to produce proteins from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kill some key predatory caterpillar and beetle pests.

— Multiple plant types (corn, soybeans, cotton, etc…) have been produced to be Roundup Ready, by inserting a gene from a type of bacteria called Agrobacteria that allows resistance to glyphosate.

Predictably, productive genetic engineering increases efficiency and yield of existing crops. Examples of productive genetic engineering of plants include:

— By accelerating the expression of the gene zmm28 in the corn’s life cycle, a gene involved in corn flowering, yields increased by up to 10%

— A gene introduced from daffodils (which make carotenoids, the pigment that gives the flower its yellow color) and two genes from a bacterium into rice created golden and carotenoid-rich rice plants were named “Golden Rice” which provides 50–60% of an individual’s Vitamin A need in a single serving.

It is a well-known industry secret that even with the incredible advances in GM crop design and production, the marginal trait and yield advances have steadily plateaued. In other words, the low hanging fruit has been picked.

Enter Agrochemicals.

Agrochemicals (agricultural chemicals, agrichemicals) are the various chemical products that are used in agriculture. In most cases, the term agrochemical refers to the broad range of pesticide chemicals as well as synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and other chemical growth agents. These additives can generally be thought of the same way as genetic traits — productive and protective. Over the years, we have seen an explosion of products from RoundUp to a plethora of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, designed to augment the genetic gains outlined above. Ramifications from unchecked usage of these chemicals now limit the long-term productivity of our soil and threaten our waterways, as most vividly demonstrated by the nearly annual emergence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. This has led to significant discussions regarding regulations around synthetic nitrogen usage on row crops. Additionally, the public has a growing wish to move away from GMOs, as concerns over limited testing remain mainstream. The public outcry for alternative strategies to improve agricultural production has grown louder over the last decade.

Enter BioBased Solutions.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of biological-based agricultural products, centered predominantly around microbial strains/solutions with both productive and protective properties, leveraging the beneficial genes these organisms already possess but don’t effectively express for a plant’s usage. The two most notable startups in the “soil microbiome” space — Indigo and Pivot — both utilize a variety of endophytes (microbes that live on, around, and within plants) to aid in abiotic stress as well as increase yield respectively. Figuring out how to “deliver” these endophytes to the seeds and plants, however, remains a challenge.

Indigo applies their product as a coating onto the seed, whereas, Pivot applies a liquid product to the field in furrow (in furrow is agricultural jargon, which means applying something very close to the seed with specialized farm equipment). Although these technologies have shown remarkable potential in controlled greenhouse settings, the translation to large-scale field trials have only shown modest benefit since their inception some 5 years ago.

The challenges in the soil microbiome space primarily stem from two equally difficult problems: 1) an application issue and 2) a commercial issue.

From an application perspective, both Indigo’s coating and Pivot’s liquid product expose endophytes to the surrounding soil. The soil already has its own sea of microbes that compete against these microbes for survival until seed germination. Additionally, soil nutrient conditions or excess rainfall impact microbial survival leaving few productive strains available once the seed germinates.

Commercially, both Indigo and Pivot have shown limited penetration primarily due to 1) pricing pressure (every bottle of endophyte costs additional money in a price-sensitive market), 2) shelf life (their product is only stable for ~30 days), and 3) the need for “in furrow” seed distribution, a specialized seeding protocol requiring additional equipment and expertise. The limited shelf-life creates a real supply chain challenge to deliver specialized, batch products to a network of distant farms who then in turn must wait for environmental conditions to be correct to sow seed. These factors create a narrow window for successful use.

Even with these challenges, we are starting to see microbial products make a commercial push into the row crop market because farmers are desperately trying to find solutions to enhance production since many have hit a brick wall in relying purely on seed genetics and agrochemicals for yield increases. Interestingly, products like Pivot’s have the potential to decrease synthetic nitrogen usage while increasing crop yield, finding a way to appeal to producers and consumers alike. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the benefit of the bio-based agricultural products above while ameliorating both the application and commercial issues?

Andes Agriculture:

Founded in 2018, Andes looked to nature to solve the delivery challenges of the microbiome space. A typical seed is composed of an outer hardy layer, called the seed coat, necessary to protect it from the environment and unwanted pests. If the seed coat can protect the seed embryo, why can it not also protect the beneficial endophytes?

Enter Microprime technology.

Microprime is Andes’ simple, yet elegant solution to solve delivery in the soil microbiome space. It’s a scalable, cost-effective process that loads Andes’ proprietary endophytic microbes directly into the seeds themselves. By incorporating these microbes into the seed, it solved both the aforementioned application and logistic challenges. First, Andes’ endophytes are not exposed to harmful soil conditions, such as soil runoff, or competitive microbes that may limit their utility. Second, Andes has selected and engineered microbes that can be preserved in the seed, showing a shelf-life greater than 12+ months so far through aged-seed testing. This increased shelf-life dramatically eases the supply chain issues referenced above and, consequently, sets Andes apart from the use-it-or-lose-it offerings from Pivot and Indigo . Farmers familiar with the Pivot and Indigo offerings have expressed excitement about Andes’ solution to their challenges.

While Andes has already shown Microprime’s successful application into new varieties of seed and with new genes, testing both protective and productive traits, farmers will have to wait until 2021 for Andes’ first commercial product launch. KdT couldn’t be more excited to play a small role in Andes’ efforts to logarithmically increase the world’s productivity in agriculture to help meet the growing population’s need for more, responsibly-grown produce.

Nature has reminded us once again, “it all starts with a seed…”, but in this case, we are looking outside and around the seed to identify natural solutions to incorporate scalable and cost-efficient technology within the seeds themselves to increase yield enhancement and meet the growing demand for responsibly grown produce across the globe.