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TechAccel Backs Chloroplast Engineering Startup Plastomics

February 8, 2018

Kansas-based agtech venture development organization TechAccel has backed ag biotech startup Plastomics.

The St. Louis-based startup is working to shorten the pipeline for developing new seeds with multiple transgenic traits, increasing the speed and lowering the cost of designing new seeds.

Seeds today are altered by inserting the desirable traits into the nucleus of a cell. With pest resistance, water stress, and climate variability on the rise, major seed providers are now “stacking” ten or more genetically modified traits in one seed. More time is added to the process with each trait, to make sure that the introduced traits have integrated into the seed properly, causing the price of creating a new seed to increase exponentially with each additional trait.

“It becomes very difficult and expensive to take all those pieces that are randomly inserted and located to make sure they all come along for the ride in those 30 or 40 varieties of corn that you want it in,” said TechAccel chief scientific officer Brad Fabbri. 

Fabbri further explained that as more traits are added to a single crop through the nucleus, unintended genetic material tends to come along, leading to what the industry calls “yield drag” — meaning that the more traits added to a  seed, the more yield will decrease. Getting rid of “yield drag” adds yet more expense to the development process.

“The pain in the industry right now is that these biotech crops have been on the market for 20 years and insects are becoming resistant to the traits. The industry response is to track more and more traits in order to fend off mounting resistance,” Plastomics CEO Sharon Berberich told AgFunderNews. The chloroplast of a cell, where photosynthesis takes place, offers another place to put new traits, but it’s no simple task. Plastomics is working to develop a standardized process to use chloroplast engineering in corn. 

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. Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

Apart from adding speed and decreasing cost, using chloroplasts to introduce new traits instead of the nucleus of the cell is also advantageous because chloroplasts do not exist in pollen, which essentially makes it impossible for the genetically modified material to be spread by pollinators or wind — a controversial element of current GMO crops.

“With current transgenic plants, the traits are actually carried in the pollen. The pollen could drift someplace where you don’t want it and could give transgenes to a plant on a neighboring field. This completely avoids that,” said Fabbri.

The possibility of chloroplast engineering has been widely known since the 1990s, but has not yet been successfully used in major crops like corn or sorghum, according to Berberich.

So far the Plastomics team has successfully used the chloroplast transformation method in tobacco.

“This year the major milestone that we need to achieve is to demonstrate that we can be successful in regenerating an entire plant using chloroplasts in corn,” said Berberich.

It’s rare in agtech to find a startup with a clear path to an exit, but Fabbri is confident that Plastomics will find an early buyer as soon as the chloroplast engineering method is “cracked.”

Berberich and co-founder and chief scientist Jeff Staub both spent decades at Monsanto before founding Plastomics, and all parties confirm that many if not all of the strategic seed players are interested in this technology whenever it’s ready. 

In this respect, Plastomics demonstrated the pharmaceutical model of venture investing becoming more common in agtech, wherein R&D risk and expense is taken on by the startup ecosystem with earlier M&A on the other side. 

Plastomics has also received funding from Biogenerator, The Yield Lab, Saint Louis Economic Development Partnership, St. Louis Arch Angels, The Helix Fund, and the Missouri Technology Corporation.

This is the first investment announcement in 2018 for TechAccel. The firm made three public investments in 2017 including animal feed additive startup Agrivida, epigenetics startup Epicrop Technologies, and computational biology startup Benson Hill Biosystems

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