Agritech start-up may have solution to ‘better GMOs’

Thanks to Morflora, modified genes stay where they are and do not pass themselves down to the next generation of produce

Trees in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim (Photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)
Trees in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim (Photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)

Bio-agriculture – using science to improve the yields and quality of plants, thus increasing the food supply – has turned into one of the most important areas of high-tech worldwide. As the world’s population grows, so does the need for food, and scientists are hard at work coming up with ways to tweak everything from the plant itself to the growing process to the way crops are harvested, seeking to achieve the maximum amount of productivity possible.

As knowledge of genetics grows, scientists have been trying to figure out ways to tool with the genomes of corn, wheat, soy, rice, and other commodities. By breeding strains of grains, fruits, and vegetables to be more resistant to certain diseases or to be less attractive to insects and pests, scientists allow farmers to keep more of what they grow, lowering the percentage of a yield that is lost to the traditional enemies of the farmer.

Scientists, of course, say that the process is perfectly safe, and they may be perfectly right — but many of the people who are supposed to eat the results of the genetic modification process disagree. Many food manufacturers, like General Mills, who have fallen to “temptation” and used agricultural resources that include genetically modified organisms in their products, have learned the hard way that many consumers just aren’t ready for “test tube Cheerios,” among other products. And while a proposition in California that would require manufacturers to inform consumers if any of the ingredients in their products were genetically modified was defeated, it’s a sure bet that the resolution will reappear sometime soon.

Why the fear of GM? For most opponents it’s a fear of the unknown. The long-term effects of the genetic changes on plants aren’t known yet, much less how they affect the human body. However, many are also opposed because of fear of what effect the genetic modifications will have not on a particular piece of fruit, but on all the fruit of that species, if and when the modifications become part of the fruit’s genome.

According to Greenpeace, one of the fiercest opponents of genetic manipulation of crops, “genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non-modified environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way.”Although, as the group says, the results are “unforeseeable,” some of the possible scenarios range from the rise of super-diseases or impossible to eradicate pests, which would compromise entire species of produce, or the “patenting” of food by large companies like Monsanto are working on seeds that produce GM plants that do not include seeds themselves — meaning that farmers who want to grow another crop will have no choice but to do business with Monsanto, instead of saving seeds from successful crops, as farmers have done for thousands of years.

Enter Israeli biotech company Morflora, which may have a solution that keeps everybody happy. The company, based in the Negev, has developed a non-transgenic method for delivering genes to plants. The genes can modify a plant in order to make it more resistant to bugs, more tolerant of heat or brackish water, etc., but the gene doesn’t become a part of the plant’s genome, meaning that it cannot be inherited by the next generation of plants. Traditional transgenic methods could take months or longer to be installed in plants, but, says Morflora, its TraitUP gene implantation system can modify a plant within just a week or so — with no ill consequences for the species.

“We are not transforming plants. We are transforming the industry,” said Dotan Peleg, CEO of Morflora. “Our technology follows our vision of increasing and securing the global agricultural production, in a sustainable manner. Morflora’s technology will accelerate and broaden the trait research industry as the first step, and upon up-scaling of the seed treatment protocols for commercial use in mass-production of seeds, the next step will be to significantly reduce time and cost to market of numerous genetically optimized crops.”

TraitUP is in its final stages of testing and will be available as a platform for GM seed developers commercially this year, the company said.

The system was discovered by plant virologist Prof. Ilan Sela from the Hebrew University and jointly developed with Prof. Haim Rabinowitch, both of Hebrew University. Morflora and Yissum Research Development Company, the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, co-own the TraitUP patents, and Morflora holds an exclusive license to commercialize the technology. Earlier this year, Morflora was a finalist for the Red Herring 100 Europe award for the best technologies of the year, a great honor for the company, said Peleg, which highlights the company’s mission “to bring about the next green revolution, increasing the yield and immunity of crops, thus increasing global human food resources, feedstock and alternative energy sources.”

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