Better cotton? It’s all in the genes, says Israeli geneticist

Rosetta Green has signed a deal with Bayer CropScience AG to produce hardier seeds that will grow high-quality cotton in challenging environmental conditions

miRNA research at Rosetta Green's lab (Photo credit: Courtesy)
miRNA research at Rosetta Green's lab (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel’s Rosetta Green, which produces special genes that are developed and modified to improve crop production, has signed a deal with international seed manufacturer Bayer CropScience AG to produce seeds to improve cotton yields for farmers. Rosetta Green’s technology is based on the development of microRNA genes, which play important roles regulating key traits in plants.

As the world population has grown, now topping seven billion people, the “green revolution” of the past 50 years is beginning to show its age. Pesticides are not as effective as they used to be as insects become more resistant, and water for irrigation is becoming an ever more expensive — and more rare — commodity, as food production ramps up to meet demand. Of even greater concern to scientists are the increasingly Westernized lifestyles in the Far East, as billions of people begin demanding better quality food, and especially meat; it takes far more water to produce a pound of meat than a pound of wheat. There’s only so much pesticide farmers can apply to crops, and there’s only so much water available.

Rosetta Green has been developing microRNA (miRNA) genes to alleviate both these problems. In the 1990s, researchers discovered that miRNA acts as a “master genome regulator” in plants and mammals. By manipulating miRNA, Rosetta Green scientists have been able to develop more resistant strains of cotton, corn, soybeans, and other crops.

The problems in food crop production are exacerbated in cotton production. Because cotton is not considered a food, stronger pesticides can be used to treat them. However, those pesticides eventually find their way into the surrounding environment, contaminating water and land. In addition, irrigation practices in many countries that are dependent on cotton for exports, like Egypt and Pakistan, have placed a major strain on water resources. Even in countries where water use is more efficient, like in Australia, recent droughts have challenged cotton farmers and raised the cost of production significantly.

It’s in response to these problems, the company said, that Rosetta Green will work with Bayer in an attempt to develop new cotton varieties that could produce better yields under difficult environmental conditions, using less or poorer quality water. Bayer, the company said, has committed to pay Rosetta Green if certain milestones are achieved in the development and commercialization of the products, plus royalties on future revenues from sales. Those royalties could amount to tens of millions of dollars, the company added.

Amir Avniel, Rosetta Green’s CEO was optimistic that the company’s researchers could come up with new and improved cotton strains. “We believe that microRNA genes have great potential in the agriculture industry and in crop improvement, and are hopeful that the new technology that Bayer and Rosetta Green will develop will succeed in significantly increasing cotton yields, especially in periods of drought and water shortage and in countries that suffer from chronic scarcity in potable water. Such developments could significantly increase the areas where crops can be grown and gradually grow more and more crops in arid areas with limited water availability or access to brackish water only,” Avniel added.

Rosetta Green was established in 2007 as a subsidiary of Rosetta Genonics, and is now a public company traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Among the other projects the company is working on is one to develop strains of crops that utilize fertilizer more effectively. Scientists estimate that plants only utilize about 30-70% of the fertilizer that is applied to them during their life cycle, and the wasted fertilizer often runs off into water supplies, contaminating them. Rosetta Green has identified microRNAs that correlate with improved fertilizer use efficiency in corn and soybean, and is working on developing them commercially.

“We are one of the only companies in the world working with miRNA,” Avniel said. “Our tests show that increasing the miRNA in specific crops yields significant improvements in plant traits, and we continue to develop technology to improve key traits in wheat, potato, castor bean, algae, tomato, trees and more.”

Most Popular
read more: