Benson Hill Biosystems, a crop genomics platform using computational biology, predictive breeding, and gene editing technologies, announced at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco last week that it acquired the assets of Schillinger Genetics, also known as eMerge Genetics.
The Iowa-based company has developed what it describes as high-yielding, high-protein non-GMO soybean varieties. Soybeans offer one of the most complete sources of protein, but the overall protein content has decreased over the years due to limitations in breeding for nutrition and yield. eMerge has focused on addressing this issue to meet the demand for higher-protein grain and healthier oils, particularly as consumers’ become more interested in plant-based protein products.
eMerge’s current technologies include conventional varieties of high-yielding, high-protein grain as well as high-oleic/low linolenic oil that food companies are seeking. It also offers a product aimed at the livestock feed industry called Navita, which is an ultra-low anti-nutrient variety with enhanced feed conversion potential.
“The foresight and hard work of John Schillinger and his team have created unique opportunities to deliver what consumers are increasingly demanding; products with higher protein levels, healthier fat, and improved sustainability,” said Matthew Crisp, CEO and co-founder of Benson Hill, in a statement announcing the partnership. “The Benson Hill team is thrilled to welcome our new eMerge colleagues as part of our Seeds & Traits business unit to create even more opportunity across the value chain.”
The partners will use Benson Hill’s CropOS predictive breeding and gene editing capabilities to accelerate the development of an expanded portfolio of more nutritious and sustainable varieties for human food and animal feed markets. Benson Hill is hoping to accelerate the development of new varieties including strains with superior protein and amino-acid profiles, better digestibility for cows, and other qualities that food companies are seeking.
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Benson Hill, which has raised roughly $94 million in venture capital funding from investors like GV and Tao Capital Partners, started as a company focused on improving photosynthesis in crop plants using big data, AI and plant genomics. For the last several decades, crop improvement and seed technologies have been largely kept in the hands of a few seed companies with deep pockets and large R&D budgets focused almost exclusively on boosting yield, which has major appeal to farmer customers.
Although this approach was successful in producing some of the highest-yielding seeds to date, the technologies used limited the ability to boost other traits at the same time, such as crops’ nutritional profiles.
“We’ve cut our teeth around photosynthesis and sustainability, and that resonates well with certain investor audiences, but in the future I think we will see more nutrition and health-focused private and public investments take place in food and agriculture as these groups realize the potential that platforms like ours have for improving the nutritional profile of crops,” Crisp told AgFunderNews following the announcement of the startup’s $60 million Series C. (Find out more about how Benson Hill is now organizing its business to reflect how it’s evolved.)
Gene editing continues to be one of the most rapidly growing sectors in agrifood tech, as ag biotechnology startups secured a staggering $1.5 billion in venture capital investment last year according to AgFunder’s latest AgriFood Tech Funding Report, which you can download here.
Benson Hill and eGenomics aren’t the only duo trying to tap into big food’s search for innovative ingredients. Last year, Israeli computational biology and crop breeding startup Equinom raised $4 million from global plant-based ingredients company Roquette and others.
There are a few other startups working on crop improvement, like Cibus, which is using a proprietary gene editing tool, the Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS), to edit the genes of crops at specific sites — for specific characteristics — without introducing any foreign DNA, a core attribute of GMO crops as they are defined today.
Calyxt, which uses gene editing technology TALEN for its product pipeline, has developed a potato variety that doesnt bruise, herbicide-tolerant wheat, and lower saturated fat canola, and high-oleic soybeans. It went public in July 2017.
Caribou Biosciences, a startup founded by Jennifer Doudna, the scientist largely attributed with the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, is developing the gene editing technology for use across agriculture, therapeutics, biological research, and industrial biotechnology. In agriculture, it’s researching the use of CRISPR to promote drought tolerance, disease resistance, increase crop yields, and develop healthier crops.
Other startups have launched to provide ancillary support for gene-editing, like Inscripta (formerly Muse Bio). It sells gene-editing tools, such as instruments, reagents, and software, and in order to create a market for these tools, the company was giving away CRISPR enzymes for free. CEO Kevin Ness likened his company to selling pickaxes during the gold rush.
Gene Editing Isn’t Just for Crops Anymore
Beyond applications in plant breeding and crop improvement, gene editing is popping up elsewhere on the farm. Acceligen announcing that it hopes to use gene editing to improve animal health by reducing the need for antibiotics in swine or eliminating the need for castration. The company is also using what it describes as advanced breeding practices to produce cattle that can withstand hotter climates.
Gene editing technologies are cropping up right and left but consumers have thrown a wrench in many biotechnologists lofty plans. Although some consumers see no issue with editing seed traits or even modifying animals intended for human food consumption, others are reluctant to give their approval or their dollars for so-called “frankenfish.”
Consumers’ weariness over biotechnology in food production stemmed largely from GMO products, culminating in the federal government passing a law requiring companies who make products that contain ingredients produced with bioengineering to include a label on the packaging.
Already, gene editing startups are eager to prevent their technology from meeting the same fate as GMOs and to obtain social license from the public at large. After its acquisition of Monsanto, Bayer quickly considered ways to reinvent GMO technology with CRISPR, a gene editing technique.
Last week, the FDA lifted its ban on AquAvantage salmon, a genetically engineered fish that grows twice as fast as its non-engineered counterpart.