Skyrocketing costs and supply chain disruptions have left farmers with a limited and rather expensive supply of traditional agrochemicals this year. Coupled with a need to reduce environmental footprint by lessening reliance on chemicals, this has widened the opportunity and demand for biological-based pesticides, fungicides, and other non-traditional crop protection products.
Poised to take advantage of this is Peptyde Bio, a company leveraging the power of peptides — small proteins that plants produce in response to environmental stresses — to enable greater crop protection and yield.
Peptyde Bio is the first company to emerge from the Danforth Technology Company, a venture formed this year by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to launch more agtech startups from the Danforth campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Tom Laurita, CEO of the DTC and interim CEO of Peptyde Bio, tells AFN that the company’s technology that finds and designs anti-microbial peptides for bio-fungicides could be “a game-changer” in combatting pests and crop disease in the future.
Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) are small proteins with antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. They are found in a wide variety of lifeforms, including plants and humans, and are already being tested in the medical world.
- Plants evolved AMPs as part of their immune defense systems over many millennia, so using AMPs as protection in bio-fungicides is not a new idea. However, Laurita says breakthroughs in the ability to discover and design AMPs, and huge improvements in bio-expression technology (AMP production) are making AMPs cost competitive with synthetic chemicals.
- Along those lines, Peptyde Bio was born out of the Danforth Center Startup Initiative, which helps scientists find marketable applications for their research and accelerate the process of getting scientific discovery from lab to commercialization.
- Peptyde Bio was co-founded by two Danforth Center “principal investigators” (PIs): chief science officer Dilip Shah, PhD, who has studied AMPs for more than 20 years, and chief technology officer Kirk Czymmek PhD, an expert in cell biology and fungal disease mechanisms.
- The company received initial investments from DTC and St. Louis-based BioGenerator Ventures.
- It also received early funding from technology incubator the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2).
How it works:
Peptyde Bio’s technology platform discovers, designs, and characterizes novel AMPs that could complement or replace traditional chemical fungicides.
- Fungi are pathogenic microbes; AMPs are anti-microbial peptides that can provide defense as part of bio-fungicide products.
- The Peptyde Bio platform can discover AMPs produced in various plants, using artificial intelligence and in silico experiments to find new AMPs, test them, and determine things like safety profile and manufacturing potential.
- The company says its AMPs are effective, environmentally friendly, and have a lower cost of development compared to traditional fungicides. This enables Peptyde Bio’s partners to commercialize AMP-based fungicides faster.
- AMPs from Peptyde Bio have so far been tested on tomatoes infected with Botrytis cinerea, and provided “significant control of gray mold disease in tomato,” according to the company.
Why DTC chose to launch Peptyde Bio:
Laurita explains that 20 years of Danforth Center research on antimicrobial peptides, combined with the current opportunity for the technology in agriculture, made Peptyde Bio an appropriate choice as DTC’s first company to launch. Danforth also owns a substantial patent portfolio that’s based on years of research done by one of the founding PIs of Peptyde Bio.
“Inside the Danforth Center, there’s a proof-of-concept fund that exists for PIs that have promising technologies,” he says. “The underlying tech that has become Peptyde Bio applied for and received two of those proof-of-concept grants.”
“As the CEO of DTC and the former CEO of NewLeaf Symbiotics, this is a related area and I was pretty sure this was a promising opportunity just from my own understanding of the market,” he adds. “It’s the right time and the right place for Peptyde Bio.”
Startups developing biologicals raised just over $892 million worldwide in 2021, according to data from AgFunder — double how much they raised the previous year. [Disclosure: AgFunder is AFN’s parent company.]
For Peptyde Bio, the issue of resistance in pests is also driving opportunity. “The US EPA is highly concerned with this,” Laurita says of the problem of more pests developing resistance to traditional fungicides. “Some of the pesticides that are used are similar enough to anti-fungals used in human health treatment that there is a danger of development of resistant fungi affecting humans as well.”
He calls antimicrobial peptides “a whole new class of anti-fungals that are much less likely to engender the development of resistance in the pathogens.”
“Synthetic chemical fungicides that are currently used are toxic to the environment, and their overuse has spurred the evolution of resistance to these chemicals in many fungal pathogens,” he adds. “AMPs are a safe alternative and/or complement to synthetic chemicals.”
So far, Peptyde Bio has hired four additional researchers and is also experimenting with the creation of an AI-enabled predictive platform that could design peptides to address specific needs in the market. “It’s a cutting-edge tool that doesn’t really exist right now,” says Laurita of the development.
In the meantime, the company expects to raise pre-seed funds in the coming months.
“The future of AMPs in ag includes the use of artificial intelligence (machine learning) to predict and design AMPs,” says Laurita. “Peptyde Bio and others are working in this direction.”