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New genes could beat old pest foes, says gene research firm

Breakthrough by Evogene yields a possible replacement for a pesticide that is showing its age

Wheat field (pexels.com)
Wheat field (pexels.com)

 

In the latest innovation in the growing industry of genetic modification, Israeli research firm Evogene last week announced a breakthrough in insecticide development.

Its big data gene analysis platform has enabled scientists to successfully recruit genetic material from microorganisms that show promise as insecticides, the company said. With more research, the company hopes to further modify the genes and enhance their insecticidal properties, and insert or breed them into crops as a built-in insecticide to battle pests.

It sounds futuristic, but Evogene didn’t invent this process. In fact, the company is simply expanding technology that has been around for over two decades in an effort to develop a replacement for a popular gene-based insecticide that is showing its age.

Some organisms have natural defenses against predators and pests, and with the advent of big data computing and advanced genetic analysis technology, it’s now possible to isolate the genes that are responsible for providing these defenses. The analysis provides insight the function of genes, with an eye toward exploiting their functionality. With enhancements, genes could be developed for insertion into species to provide a plethora of benefits, such as resistance to pests and a greater ability to thrive in dry climates.

Based on its latest research, Rehovot-based Evogene announced that it had isolated specific genes in microbes that appear to have “insecticidal properties” capable of fighting off several major-league pests. Using its proprietary microbial-based database and dedicated analysis platform, BiomeMine, the company said it had isolated several microbial-based genes that will be effective against Coleoptera (members of the beetle family) and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies).

Those bug families include insects that are among farmers’ biggest nightmares – corn rootworm and corn earworm, responsible for huge losses each year.

Evogene will now validate its computational findings against actual bugs at the company’s R&D site in St. Louis, Missouri, the headquarters of genetic modification giant Monsanto, which is an investor in Evogene.

While the genetic material discovered by Evogene could be used in numerous ways – for example, it could be developed into a biopesticide – the company has something different in mind: the insertion of the genes into crops, modifying them to contain natural defenses against the pests.

While inserting genes into plants in order to provide them with a built-in insecticide sounds Frankensteinish to some, the truth is that the practice has been around for years. In fact, many crops – including corn, soybeans, and tobacco – already contain engineered genes to fight off pests, based on the genetic material of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produce material that acts as an insecticide against the same pests Evogene is hoping to conquer.

Bt-based genes were first implanted into crops in 1995, and by now the gene has been bred into numerous crops, including several strains of corn and soybeans. Bt was discovered to be an effective pest-killer in 1901, and by the 1920s it was being used in pesticides.

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)

Bt spores, the form in which the material is sprayed onto crops, have generally been considered safe, but there has been some controversy about their safety when bred into crops. The idea of inserting actual Bt genes into crops came in the mid-1990s, after the technology to accomplish this became available – and after it became clear that bugs were building up resistance to the Bt spores, a process which has accelerated in recent years.

With the new genes, Evogene researchers hope to develop an effective replacement for Bt-based pesticides in gene form, which can be bred or inserted into crops. The new engineered genes, said the company, could constitute “the next generation of insect control products that will address this growing resistance.”

The genes currently being studied are part of a growing database containing tens of millions of microbial genes. Data is culled from numerous sources, both public and proprietary – company research, academic studies, government data, etc.

“With the microbial gene pool constituting hundreds of millions of potential genes, the challenge of finding novel microbial genes that can form the basis of future insect control products depends on both compiling the huge amount of relevant data into one integrated database and successfully analyzing this huge diversity,” Evogene said.

Those benefits come at a cost, say opponents of genetic modification. In Europe, many government officials are solidly opposed to genetically modified crops, and those that farmers are allowed to grow are strictly regulated and extensively tested. According to groups like the Non-GMO Project, numerous 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.”

It should be noted, however, that there are as yet no studies showing that genetically modified organisms are in any way dangerous – and according to supporters of genetic modification, the world may not survive without them.

According to Sam Fiorello, COO of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, a nonprofit science research center that develops plant science technologies, “we really have no choice. By 2050 we will need to feed a lot more people; we are going to have to produce as much food in the next 35 years as we have in the last 8,000 years. To do that, we are going to need to use all the tools at our disposal – and genetic modification cannot be ruled out.”

“The scientific evidence over tens of millions of acres of plantings is that it is a safe technology,” said Fiorello. Europe and the other places where the technology has been banned will eventually come around, he said; the need is too great. “The anti-science narrative is strong, but I believe that as scientists learn to tell their story better – and the need becomes more evidence – there will be more acceptance of the work we are doing.”

That’s what Evogene is banking on, said Ofer Haviv, president and CEO of Evogene. “By formulating unique approaches to data generation and computational analysis, we are paving the path for the future development of new insect control products. The validation of these candidate genes, which is the next significant milestone in the program, will further advance us on this path.”

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