If you enjoy gnawing on a buttery ear of corn or biting into a luscious porterhouse steak, you’ve savored the results of Ag Biotech (agricultural biotechnology). Ag Biotech encompasses an expansive landscape involving biological, chemical, and even digital processes used in its two major sectors: plants and animals. With ever increasing world hunger, diminished resources, and accelerating climate change, new technologies are emerging that promise to enhance product yield and sustainability.
Ag Biotech is attracting significant investment. According to Technology Acceleration Partners, the sector drew $3.4 billion in 2017 and $6.9 billion, nearly double, by the end of 2019. Further, according to MarketsandMarkets, the value of the agricultural biologicals sector is expected to rise to $18.9 billion by 2025.
Part of this rapid development comes from the rise of young, innovative startups that often bring to the table fresh ideas and new technological advances. Examples include technology for real-time health management decisions for livestock; novel strategies to enhance plant- and soil-beneficial microbiomes by allowing plants to decide; and developing superior crop varieties by utilizing groups of plants captured as clones, seeds, or DNA with high allelic diversity. Also contributing to rapid development is the recent rise in innovation partnerships that pair larger companies with startups to accelerate getting products to market.
“On the hoof” testing for COVID-19
Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) annually accounts for more than $4 billion in losses for the U.S. cattle industry. Antimicrobial treatment of an entire herd can reduce the infection incidence. However, such antibiotic overuse may also contribute to development of antimicrobial drug resistance. Advanced Animal Diagnostics (AAD) has developed a point-of-care technology to detect individual infections in a test that takes only 32 seconds to perform.
Joy Parr Drach, AAD’s president and CEO, explains, “There is no diagnostic available for the effective and rapid detection of an immune response to infection in individual livestock. As a result, farmers often are applying mass medication that is both expensive and potentially detrimental to [the drugs’] long-term efficacy.
“Our QScout® BLD instrument can identify cattle that are infected during the screening process. It performs a rapid blood leukocyte differential test that can be done on-site for each animal.”
When incoming animals are tagged and vaccinated, a simple specialized jugular stick can be performed, and the blood evaluated immediately. “There are no wet reagents needed,” she asserts. “After a sample is inserted, the readout is very simple. It shows if antibiotics are needed (green), if no treatment is needed (red), or if livestock face the greatest risk of mortality (purple).”
The instrument, a “lab in a box,” incorporates algorithms that allow it to identify the differentially stained leukocytes and make the call. One of the technology’s novelties is its ability to detect “band neutrophils,” a harbinger for impending mortality.
QScout provides test results for individual cattle within minutes and empowers timely management decisions. According to Parr Drach, the technology is now being adapted to predict disease severity in COVID-19 patients.
“We were alerted by a doctor who saw one of the first papers from China reporting that a specific signature is detected in leukocyte profiles in COVID-19 patients, just as we detect specific leukogram signatures in very sick cattle,” she reports. “We immediately realized the potential of this technology to predict early in the infection which patients may become severely ill.
“With such a point-of-care device, it would be quick and easy to screen and monitor patients. We are now pursuing this possibility. I feel very excited that our small but mighty crew may also be able to help in human medicine.”
Parr Drach sums up the synchronistic opportunity: “With the unique ability to identify banded neutrophils as an early warning system, we are looking for partners to help us navigate the human medical side of these studies. We’d love to make that contribution.”
Beneficial microbial teams
You might think eliminating microbes would be a priority in farming, but quite the opposite is true. The soil in which crops grow consists of a rich ecosystem that includes an abundant and diverse array of helpful microbes. Although contemporary plant science often focuses on pathogenic effects, new approaches are promoting plant- and soil-enriching microbiomes. For example, a new approach developed by BioConsortia focuses on developing microbial teams that facilitate plant health and growth.
“Despite huge challenges to our natural resources such as finite amounts of water and land as well as increasing droughts, much of the world is using conventional methods of agriculture” comments Marcus Meadows-Smith, the CEO of BioConsortia. “Conventional methods collect soil, isolate microbes, and then identify the microbes’ effect on plants one by one. It’s a little like trying to strike it rich with a lottery ticket.
“Our strategy is to first enrich and accumulate the beneficial microbes by evolving the plant’s microbiome. The plant selects the beneficial microbes or preselects the winning lottery tickets. Thus, we are able to identify the best microbes or microbial consortia that promote the phenotype we want.”
With the company’s Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS) platform, thousands of plants are grown under different stresses, and an iterative process shifts the microbial community toward the most beneficial team. Meadows-Smith elucidates, “For example, we may add Pythium, a pathogenic fungus, to the soil and individually seed thousands of plants. Perhaps five survive the first round. We take the microbiome from these plants, add to the next generation of seeds, and repeat the process. On the third round, all 1,000 plants survive.
“Next, we isolate and identify all the microbes and determine the optimal combination. In this way, while we select the plant phenotype, the plants select the team.”
According to Meadows-Smith, the isolated microbial teams are then developed into a seed treatment, drench, or granule product, or into foliar products for some of their fungicides. He continues, “The AMS process cuts the amount of time and money needed to develop new agricultural biological products by two-thirds.” The company currently has a number of products in its pipeline including biostimulants, fungicides, and nematicides.
Multiple approaches for superior crops
With nearly a billion acres of farmland in the United States, the introduction of scientific tools to improve the quality and quantity of crops could bring about substantial economic and health benefits. Such tools are being developed by Arcadia Biosciences. For example, the company’s ArcaTech™ platform promises to enhance nutritional value, improve climate resiliency, and maximize yields and shelf life.
“By integrating multiple approaches,” says Randall Shultz, PhD, Arcadia’s chief technology officer, “we have the capability to deploy products that meet non-GMO expectations.” These approaches include TILLING (Targeting Induced Local Lesions IN Genomes), gene editing, and epigenetic optimization.
Since genetic variation is abundant in nature, finding the best plants with the most desirable characteristics can take decades using traditional techniques. To help accelerate that process, the company employs TILLING technology that utilizes groups of plants captured as clones, seeds, or DNA with high allelic diversity. This nontransgenic (non-GMO) process first identifies the most desirable plants and then breeds them with high-performing varieties to develop a superior plant variety. Arcadia develops and maintains libraries of key crops.
“The ArcaTech technology is crop agnostic,” Shultz asserts. “In fact, our GoodWheat portfolio, which includes high-fiber, low-calorie, low-allergen, and shelf-stable attributes, was developed through a previous generation of the platform.”
The company is also pursuing the hemp industry. “By targeting this powerful technology platform at a semidomesticated crop like hemp,” Shultz explains, “we have the opportunity to rapidly solve grower challenges such as disease, yield, and plant architecture while also improving attributes that consumers care about such as custom cannabinoid and terpene profiles for the wellness market, improved flavor and oil profiles for grain, or higher quality fiber for industrial uses. It is our goal to help hemp reach its full potential as a global, sustainable, and extremely useful crop.”
Rise of innovation partnerships
In everyday life, common pests include nosy neighbors and telemarketers. In farming, they include fungi, weeds, and insects that damage crops. If crop yields are to be sustained, all these farming pests must be suppressed.
“Most solutions to the pest issue have traditionally been chemistry based,” says Benoit Hartmann, PhD, head of biologics, Bayer CropScience. “But recently the field has exploded with biological solutions, such as using soil bacteria or fungi. Many are seeking ways that involve natural processes used by Mother Nature to control pests.”
Bayer, long active in agriculture, reaffirmed its commitment to crop science by acquiring a successful startup called AgraQuest. “Some of the biological solutions that originated from AgraQuest have had a major impact on improving farmers’ systems of crop defense,” Hartmann explains. “AgraQuest’s portfolio mostly consisted of biological products to help farmers manage insects and diseases that can be devastating.
“For example, AgraQuest developed Serenade, a biofungicide to help control plant diseases. We continue to improve it and have expanded its use for a variety of fruit and vegetable crops, and for diverse growing conditions.”
Hartmann reports that the company actively scouts for young, innovative startups with which to collaborate: “Our company has an ‘open innovation’ model. We have a robust grant program for startups and academics who have novel ideas and approaches, and who are seeking additional resources to build out their concepts.”
Through its Grants4Ag program, Bayer is awarding 20 to 30 unrestricted grants that typically range from $5,000 to $15,000. There are no reporting requirements, and applicants retain ownership of any intellectual property developed. In addition to receiving a grant, each recipient partners with a Bayer scientist who will provide guidance and feedback on the project. Hartmann says the company “views these grants as an initial seed investment (no pun intended) with the potential to become larger-scale, longer-term collaborations with Bayer.”
Flexible partnership model
“It’s an exciting time in the Ag Biotech field because startups have been emerging in growing numbers, especially in the last five years,” observes Adrian Percy, PhD, chief technology officer, UPL, one of the top five agricultural solutions companies worldwide. UPL has just unveiled its OpenAg™ Center in Durham, NC. “Our goal,” Percy emphasizes, “is to partner with innovative start-ups and help them evaluate their technologies and get to market quicker.”
Startups that try to partner with large agricultural companies may find themselves stuck in a large, intricate corporate web. However, startups that try to partner with UPL may have a different experience. With UPL, Percy asserts, startup partnerships may be established more easily and quickly. Also, these partnerships may be “more flexible and agile.”
“We are technology agnostic in that we are open to chemical, biological, and digital platforms,” Percy elaborates. “Companies can easily contact us via a portal on our website and start the process within a few days, rather than taking months or years to do this. Also, since our OpenAg Center is built within the Alexandria Center for AgTech, some of these startups are even our neighbors.”
Percy says that the center is the culmination of a long-held vision: “Despite challenges from COVID-19, we have been able to open the center on time. We have substantial laboratory space and a team of seasoned scientists able to quickly validate a wide range of technologies. We see this approach as a prelude to going into field testing. Our goal is to collaborate with startups to accelerate the large-scale evaluation and testing of innovative agricultural technologies.”
Percy looks forward to seeing substantial progress within the next two to five years. “I expect biological, chemical, and digital technologies will converge and work together to solve problems and reduce environmental load,” he explains. “This will range from creating new breeding technologies for crops to digital tools enabling early pest detection and eradication.”