Israeli startup maps genome of cotton, sweet potato for better crops

NRGene’s software charts the genetic makeup of organisms in bid to find the most resilient seeds

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Cotton field (CC BY Mike Beauregard, Flickr)
Cotton field (CC BY Mike Beauregard, Flickr)

NRGene, the Israeli startup that has mapped the genome for bread, pasta and wild emmer wheat, said that it has now mapped the genome for the most common cotton breed and the sweet potato, giving researchers critical insights for developing healthier plants with higher yields.

NRGene said it partnered with Genosys Inc. (TGS Singapore), a distributor of genomics technologies in China, to assemble the genome makeup of Upland Cotton, the most common cotton used for clothing, in less than seven weeks. A similar effort used to take years and cost many millions of dollars, the company said.

Upland Cotton makes up 90 percent of the global cotton grown around the world and is used to produce most of the world’s clothing, the company said.

The genomic makeup of Gossypium barbadense, also known as extra-long staple cotton, which is used in luxury cotton fabric, was also mapped, the company said in a statement.

NRGene's CEO Gil Ronen (Courtesy)
NRGene’s CEO Gil Ronen (Courtesy)

“Cotton is one of the world’s most important non-food agricultural crops,” said NRGene CEO Gil Ronen in a statement. “By delivering critical insights into its makeup, we’re helping researchers develop healthier plants with higher yields that require fewer resources.”

Seed developers worldwide spend billions of dollars and years to develop new, more nutritious and resilient varieties of seeds. These in turn enable farmers to grow bigger quantities of more nutritious and more resilient crops. This is crucial for a world that will have to feed and dress an expected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Demand for food globally is expected to rise at least 20 percent over the next 15 years, according to a May 2017 World Bank report.

Genomes contain all the genetic makeup of organisms, be they humans, plants, animals or bacteria. By studying the genomes of the plants to determine which seeds will better suit climatic conditions and which will have high resiliency, developers can save a lot of time and money and engage in more efficient agriculture.

The assembly of the sweet potato genome was delivered to a group of scientists from Japan, China, and Korea and was part of a project to research the makeup of the sweet potato.

“The sweet potato is an essential crop for the world’s communities, especially in Asia and Africa, providing high vitamin, mineral and calorie content,” said Professor Qingchang Liu from China Agricultural University who was part of the consortium set up to study the starchy, sweet root. “Therefore, we launched an international genome sequencing project for the sweet potato.”

"Rescued" sweet potatoes that have cosmetic issues, meaning they would not have made it to supermarket shelves. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Sweet potatoes provide high vitamin, mineral and calorie content (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The assembly of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) genome took less than two months using technology developed by US firm Illumina Inc., a developer of technology for genomic research, and NRGene’s software.

“The developments in genetic research over the past couple of years are startling,” said Ung-Han Yoon of the Rural Development Administration of Korea. “Previously, we labored for years to assemble genomes. Now NRGene’s tech can deliver essential data on critical crops, such as the sweet potato, in only a matter of weeks at a fraction of the cost.”

The international research team is now eyeing the creation of a sweet potato pan-genome, which will allow researchers to see unique and shared traits among all varieties of the root and then breed sweet potatoes with higher nutritional values, productivity and disease resistance.

The pan-genome will be analyzed using one of NRGene’s software tools, which captures the diversity of species and allows the creation of a full genomic picture that enables a comparative analysis of multiple varieties.

“With the genome and ultimately the pan-genome analysis, breeders can develop more nutritious, high yielding varieties with fewer resource requirements,” said NRGene’s Ronen.

NRGene, based in Ness Ziona, Israel, is a genomic big data company that develops software and algorithms to reveal the genomic makeup and diversity of crop plants, animals, and aquatic organisms which help support breeding programs. NRGene’s software is being used by some of the leading seed companies worldwide, including Monsanto Company and Syngenta, as well as research teams in academia.

Set up by Ronen and Guy Kol in 2010, the company enlisted code crackers from the Israeli army’s elite 8200 unit and got them to write algorithms that would do the job of deciphering genomes. The set of computational tools they developed, together with software engineers and bioinformaticians, allow NRGene to map complex genomes quickly and accurately.

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