Express Yourself: The coming revolution in crop yields via epigenetics

March 8, 2017 |

In Florida, spring is arriving, and with it our next-door neighbors have finally convinced their youngest son not to emit a blood-curdling rebel yell whenever frustrated; the decibel level in our building has dropped considerably, and therein lies a tale of changing behaviour without changing genetics, and in the world of plants this is becoming big news when the changes become inheritable.

The news that’s arrived is that TechAccel, the Kansas City-based technology and venture development company, announced it has completed an equity investment in Epicrop Technologies Inc., an agriculture biotechnology company developing revolutionary epigenetic technology to improve crop yields.

This investment is part of Epicrop’s extended Series A round, which raised a total of $3.2 million. Additional investments were made by North Forty Ventures, Nelnet, Speedway Properties and Allen & Company. TechAccel has committed to make additional investments to support science advancement with Epicrop.

We’ll come back to North Forty in a second.

For now, let’s visit briefly the story of epigenetics. If you are concerned that a) the world doesn’t want genetic modification and b) the world needs crops with more stress tolerance and yield if we are to produce all the food, feed, fiber, and fuel that the next generation will require —then you’ll be delighted to know that epigenetics as a commercial technology just took this vital step forward.

Specifically, the Lincoln, Neb.-based startup co-founded by Dr. Sally Mackenzie, a pioneer in epigenetics in agriculture, has been able to epigenetically improved plants—including soybeans, tomatoes and sorghum—which have shown increased yields and stress tolerance.

The epigenetics backstory

Although the story of our noisy young neighbor “going through a phase” doesn’t directly involve a permanent, inheritable change in behaviour — it’s a repression, albeit a social one, and reminds us that repression and expression is a gigantic part of our genetic heritage. That is, which genes switch on and off, and why and how and when. You might find yourself wondering, for example, how a single cell from a mother and father manages to subdivide into all the types of cells that a body needs – muscles, neurons, blood cells and so on. That’s morphogenesis and cell development, and it’s regulated by genes, but most importantly it its regulated by the expression of genes, and gene expression is involved if you’ve ever wondered why puberty brings its manifest changes.

Think of your genetic code as a light switch, and gene expression is the act of turning the light on or off — you haven’t changed the electrical system, but you have changed the room when you flip the switch. And, think of epigenetics, to use a crude illustration, as a piece of masking tape you have applied over the switch to hold it permanently in one place.

In that example, you haven’t altered the genetics — the wiring system — but you have permanently altered the gene expression.

In the world of crops, gene expression is intensively related to crop yield and stress tolerance. “Increasing yield and stress tolerance are key goals of most seed companies,” said Epicrop CEO Dr. Michael Fromm. “Epicrop’s method has the potential to provide these traits” he added, “by adding epigenetic information directly to the seeds of commercial varieties without adding any genetic material. The unique features of this method readily fit into traditional commercial breeding and seed production methods to facilitate company adoption of this system.”

“The pressure is on all of us in agriculture to deliver higher performing plants in the face of challenges like climate change and increasing global demand,” said Dr. Mackenzie. “This technology is a critical step forward in addressing those problems head on.”

The next step

TechAccel CEO Michael Helmstetter said, “We believe Epicrop is emerging as a leader with its revolutionary plant breeding platform, and TechAccel is ready to collaborate with Epicrop to advance this science for at least two additional crops.”

We’ll stand by to learn more about those two additional crops. If one of them isn’t corn, I’ll eat my hat. But what will be the second one?

The North Forty backstory

This storyline wouldn’t be complete without a reference to a digital transformation that always reminded us of epigenetics — that is, changing behaviour without changing code.

Consider for a second the impact of the Microsoft Office suite in your life or the life of your company. There’s Word, Excel, Powerpoint and — for those on the Windows platform — there’s Access. The code is the code, but the synchronization between the programs changed the way that we approached the delivery of information. People found it easy to use the Microsoft Office suite, and it changed the way we deliver information forever — such as, the PowerPoint-baed investor deck, the Excel-base financial forecasts and the Word-based information memorandum. It made it easier to understand and therefore accelerate early-stage companies.

See? Epigenetics — heritable changes in the way things are done without changing the underlying code of any given program.

What is interesting, of course, is that the founding father of Microsoft Office in so many ways is Jeff Raikes, the principal of North Forty Ventures and the lead investor in this investment round in Epicrop. After he left Microsoft, Raikes became CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which ultimately made the crucial investment in the technology that became Amyris — as well as a zillion other acts of venturing goodwill in the field of human health. Along the way, he established his own North Forty Ventures and a private foundation with which he spread some wealth.

“We believe Dr. Mackenzie’s research may represent the most important breakthrough in crop breeding technology of this era,” said Raikes of this emerging company, “We’re pleased to support the commercialization of this research at Epicrop and look forward to the impact it will have for global agriculture.”

The genetics of Epicrop — that is, its technology — is quite impressive. But the epigenetics — which includes the circle of investors which will shape the expression and development of that technology — those look good too. We’ll keep an eye on this very interesting company and its crop circle of investors and inventors.

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