Israel is quietly becoming a world center of genome research and genetic technology, especially in the area of plants. Many of the Israeli companies in this area are looking to another center of genome research: St. Louis, Missouri, home of several institutions and companies – among them Monsanto – that specialize in gene-based “plant engineering,” in which genomes are manipulated to develop hardier, more nutritious, and more tasty versions of familiar grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The latest to do so is NRGene, a Ness Ziona-based firm that does plant genome research. Officials at GlobalSTL and its parent group BioSTL – both initiatives to bring more genetic technology firms to St. Louis – see NRGene’s decision as a real feather in their cap. Even Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, is excited about the company’s arrival. “NRGene’s decision to locate its U.S. headquarters in St. Louis is another big win for the region and a testament to our commitment to competing worldwide for jobs and investment,” said Nixon.

NRGene made its mark last year when it announced that it had successfully assemble the whole genome sequence for wheat, one of the most complex plant or animal genomes – the first group in the world to accomplish this. The company’s move to St. Louis is being engineered with assistance from GlobalSTL, a local initiative that seeks to attract top genomics firms in the city. NRGene is the fourth Israeli company that GlobalSTL has recruited for St. Louis, following Kaiima Agro-Biotech, Evogene, and Forrest Innovations.

“Missouri as the ‘heartland’ of American agriculture is the natural US home for NRGene,” said company CEO Gil Ronen. “Our strong partnership with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center brought us to St. Louis, and GlobalSTL convinced us to stay.”

Founded in 1998, the Danforth Center is a not-for-profit research institute that engages in research – genetic and non-genetic – to improve plants, and to develop St. Louis region as a world center for plant science.

NRGene, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Cereal Crop Improvement, successfully mapped the genome of wild Emmer wheat, an ancient variety endemic to the Middle East and found in many archaeological excavations and ancient tombs. The variety, thought lost, was (re)discovered in 1906 in what is today Rosh Pina, and is used chiefly in mountainous regions in Turkey, and in central and northern Europe, due to its ability to withstand drier and colder environments endemic to those areas. The wheat genome turned out to be one of the most complicated on the planet – consisting of 17 billion of DNA base pairs (humans have about 3 billion).

Besides wheat, NRGene has assembled more than 80 other genomes in the past year, making it one of the world’s most advanced firms in genetic research for plants, said Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BioSTL, which launched the GlobalSTL initiative in 2014. “With each successful recruitment, we are building a cluster of world-class agritech companies that bring with them technology and talent that enrich the St. Louis ecosystem. NRGene is another exciting and highly-respected Israeli company that follows GlobalSTL’s prior recruitment of Kaiima Agro-Biotech, Evogene, and Forrest Innovations.”

Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)

Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company’s headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)

The GlobalSTL team first encountered NRGene in Israel in April 2015 on a trip that brought together representatives from Monsanto, KWS Saat (a German company that focuses on plant breeding) and the Danforth Center. NRGene’s connections with Center scientists influenced the company’s decision to consider St. Louis as its North American base, said GlobalSTL. After that initial meeting, GlobalSTL hosted NRGene in St. Louis, introducing the company to potential local corporate partners and customers, St. Louis’ innovation districts, and to state agencies that aid in relocation incentives.

NRGene now joins three other Israeli plant engineering firms that have established US headquarters in St. Louis, all of which are considered heavyweights in the business.

Kaiima, which enhances a plant’s genome without genetic modification, in 2013 raised over $65 million from investors, and Evogene has established very strong partnerships with both Monsanto and Sygenta, the two biggest plant engineering tech firms in the world.

There are many other promising plant engineering and genome mapping start-ups in Israel, as well. Just last week, for example, San Francisco-based Twist BioScience, which makes “genes to order” for researchers based on mixing and matching DNA base pairs, bought out Tel Aviv-based Genome Compiler, which developed an online tool that allows researchers to figure which base pairs will work best with others.

“Plant engineering,” which some call genetic modification (it should be noted that many engineering companies do not attempt to manipulate genes, but instead use aggressive breeding methods to develop crops) as well as genetic manipulation, remains controversial. In Europe, for example, genetically modified crops are strictly regulated and extensively tested before being allowed for use. Currently, only nine such crop types, including eight GM cottons, 28 GM maizes, three GM oilseed grapes, seven GM soybeans, one GM sugar beet, one GM bacterial biomass, and one GM yeast biomass have been authorized for use in Europe. All others are currently either outright banned, or under long-term study.

According to groups like the Non-GMO Project, there are many studies that “demonstrate risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see genetic modification as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven, energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.” According to the group, ”GM foods are not properly tested for human safety before they are released for sale.”

The fact that there are no diseases officially attributed to GM doesn’t meant that it’s safe, either. “GM foods are not labelled in the US and other nations where they are widely eaten and consumers are not monitored for health effects. Because of this, any health effects from a GM food would have to meet unusual conditions before they would be noticed.”

So far, one US state – Vermont – has passed laws that require GMOs to be listed on ingredient labels, and other states are considering such laws as well. In July 2015, the US House of Representatives passed a bill banning such labeling, but in the wake of the Vermont law, many food manufacturers – largest among them General Mills in the US – announced they would list GMOs on the labels of products in which they are used.

Is this the kind of technology Israel should be known for? Most definitely, believes Rurik Halaby, CEO of New York-based AgriCapital, one of the largest mergers and acquisition firms working in the agritech space.

“All scientific studies that have been conducted so far show that GMO is safe “and the opposition to it, especially in places like the European Union, where GMO is totally banned, is just puzzling. The demand for food will double by 2050,” noted Halaby. “Fifty years ago, one hectare of land fed one person for a year. By 2050, we will have to increase that fivefold, so that a hectare feeds five people. Today the production of food depends a great deal on technology, and Israel can be proud of its role in helping make this happen.”

The bottom line, said Guy Kol, a founder and vice president of R&D at NRGene, is that genetic technology is going to be necessary as the world’s population grows.

“The world is getting drier, and the need to develop varieties of corn and rice that can withstand that is more important than ever,” said Kol. “Imagine being able to develop a variety of rice that would be able to go weeks or longer without rain. That would be a very important accomplishment.”