A Yield Revolution in Row Crops Cometh

May 23, 2018 |

Yield10’s Brave New World of Metabolic Engineering, Benson Hill’s cloud biology and CRISPR/Cas9 from Purdue and the Chinese Academy of Sciences? Crop yield may never be the same.

And developers using crops for bioindustrials or nutrition stand to reap the benefit via bigger refineries and lower input costs.

Yield, yield, yield. Just about everyone thinks about it, talks about it, dreams about it, depends on the advancement of same. But row crops are tough. There are only so many acres, so many photons, so much CO2, and where that fixed CO2 ends up is inherently more complex than in e.coli or yeast.  

Yes, there have been herbicide traits, and 2 or 3 pesticides and maybe one or two others, and the industry has become better in positioning traits. But all those traits are about protecting the yield you have. 

But the yield outlook is changing, and fast. Today. we’ll look at the fascinating world of Yield10 in depth, and also at some exciting news from Purdue University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and from Benson Hill Biosystems and its cloud biology platform.

A CRISPR gambit is paying off in rice

In the headline grabber this past week, a team of scientists from Purdue University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has used CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology to develop a variety of rice that produces 25-31 percent more grain and would have been virtually impossible to create through traditional breeding methods.

The team, led by Jian-Kang Zhu, a distinguished professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue and director of the Shanghai Center for Plant Stress Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, made mutations to 13 genes associated with the phytohormone abscisic acid, known to play roles in plant stress tolerance and suppression of growth. Of several varieties created, one produced a plant that had little change in stress tolerance but produced 25 percent more grain in a field test in Shanghai, China, and 31 percent more in a field test conducted on China’s Hainan Island.

Their findings were just published  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — and you can read all about it here.

Benson Hill, Beck’s and cloud biology in  a concerted attack on corn yields

Also on the radar this month? Benson Hill Biosystems, a crop improvement company unlocking the natural genetic diversity of plants, and Beck’s, the largest independent, retail seed company in the United States will advance a trait product candidate through the final stages of development and anticipate filing a regulatory dossier with the USDA by 2021.

Benson Hill has developed a robust pipeline of trait product candidates that improve crop photosynthetic efficiency, one of which has demonstrated significant yield increases in hybrid corn across three years of field trials in a broad range of environments and genetic backgrounds. Through its co-development and commercialization agreement, Beck’s and Benson Hill 

“For years, trait innovation has been largely limited to only the largest multinational companies. The goal of our product development and testing programs has always been to help farmers succeed by bringing them more choice and profitability,” said Kevin Cavanaugh, Director of Research at Beck’s. “We have been working with Benson Hill now for years and are convinced that this collaboration will allow us to open new channels for innovation and greater opportunity for our customers.”

“It’s encouraging to see companies tackling some of the most critical and challenging areas of crop improvement such as photosynthesis,” said David Ertl, Technology Commercialization Manager at the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. “Novel trait development research is important, but it is equally important that these trait developers partner with others in the seed industry to commercialize these traits and get them into the hands of farmers.” All about that here.

And Yield10’s metabolic engineering approach

When Metabolix announced back in 2015 that they were spinning out a company called Yield10 to commercialize crop science innovations, targeted on key row crops and focused on increased carbon fixation — that made a lot of sense.

Eventually, with opportunities for Yield10 rising and the commodity price challenges in Metabolix’s renewable chemicals business only getting tougher, the spin-out became the company and the whole thing became Yield10.

Today, they are optimizing crops from CO2 to seed and the the highlight partnership is Monsanto which is now, following merger approvals, being merged into Bayer Life Sciences in a $63 billion deal. Yield10 has reached its watershed moment — the transition from bioplastics to ag traits was a big bite to swallow. 

Now, it’s all about yield, and we caught up recently with Yield10 CEO Oliver Peoples to assess the opportunities and progress in the space. 

The pursuit of Yield in Row Crops

“For yield, you work on the genes,” Peoples said. “That’s what Metabolix did well – knock out the activities and introduce others, making it as efficient as possible. The industry has been able to develop phenomenal organisms — look at Solazyme and Genomatica, for example. But to date, it’s been mostly focused on fermentation and could you scale it up?”

So, Yield10 is focused instead on row crops. And what’s up with the US market staples, corn and soybeans? “With corn the yield already 170-180 bushels per acre, yet there’s a lot of interest in it,” Peoples told the Digest, “and we see a path to maybe another 10 percent increase and are working on that. The big question in corn is ‘Which 4-5 genes do I change? Back in the day, we had no idea what to change. Now we have the tools.”

“In soybeans, the problem gets interesting. Soybean is around 80% protein meal, and soybean oil was all around biodiesel. Protein is a big piece of the puzzle and in increasing yield you get both more protein and more oil. But we also see a niche opportunity in specialty oils —like a special canola, with higher oil content. We are working on increasing oil and are making progress in high oleic oils that are healthier and more nutritious.”

But there’s a whole range of other row crops, and Yield10 has also done work on some up-and-comers like camelina. “There are the industry initiatives to take over wheat and the same with rice,” Peoples noted. “The the majors are working to lock those up, as we’ve seen with Syngenta and hybrid wheat. Or RoundUp Ready rice. And with genome editing there has been more favorable opinion in the EU, so we are doing some work in wheat and rice to identify new targets for editing. And we are looking at sorghum and trying to find the right partners.”

And so we come to genome editing — and exotic world of CRISPR and so forth. Before we assess those, let’s take a short moment to offer a quick primer on photosynthesis and yield for the non-scientist – the need to knows. Biologists, you can skip to the next section.

A Primer for Non-Scientists: Two Major Types of Photosynthesis, C3 and C4

Generally, plants can be categorized into two different groups based on their system of photosynthesis. C3 photosynthesis, known as the simplest type of photosynthesis system, exists in most agricultural crops, such as potato, rice, soybean and wheat. C4 photosynthesis is a more complex system because plants using this system have evolved a distinctive cellular structure, concentrating carbon dioxide for the RUBISCO enzyme through the C4 pathway. Corn, oil palm, and sugarcane are part of the C4 photosynthesis plant family.

In general, C4 photosynthesis plants have up to 5 times inherently higher plant yield than C3 photosynthesis plants, and such difference in plant yield comes from evolution, which has led plant scientists to seriously consider the possibility that new genetic enhancements can be created to improve the photosynthetic system in C3 plants. With advanced computational methods as well as the agricultural biotechnology that our PHB-focused crop science program has developed over the years, we are able to observe encouraging early indications of improved photosynthesis performance in plants, which has the potential to lead to novel yield traits to increase plant yield, seed yield, biomass, oil and starch content.

The New toolbox: CRISPR, Yield10 and so on

“CRISPR genome editing completes the toolbox,” Peoples said. “For me, it’s a game-changer. Metabolic engineering can identify the targets, and genome editing gives us a new way, and where Yield10 comes into the picture is in identifying the target. 

Meanwhile, Yield10 Bioscience is increasing carbon fixation and eliminating bottlenecks in plant carbon metabolism via a metabolic engineering systems approach under the T3 platform in order to increase yield. 

For biologists: Yield10 uses advanced transcriptome network analysis in its “T3 Platform” to identify global regulator genes to control complex global regulatory networks and gene cascades and achieve step change improvements in crop yields.

The New Entrants and the New Business Models

“There’s a lot of money coming into the sector out of IT, not fundamentally grounded in the ag space, looking, to use a sexy IT sector analogy, to apply IT strategies and go massively parallel and solve problems much faster and in a more optimized way. The problem they’ll find is not only in the biology but in the markets and the cost structure. We can solve biology problems and go well beyond expectations, but it is the price points that are real fundamental in the ag space space.  In [Metabolix days] , what we couldn’t solve was the market.

So, we know the companies, we see the valuations, you have to smile, and if they can pull it off, good luck to them. 

We’re going a different way. Working on yield, if we can solve that, the process of getting to market will be handled by others, and that’s a better model for us [as a small company], because the barrier to a new company entering a sector are so enormous.

The start-up can’t compete in deployment. So we aim not to become a competitor but a provider of the trait. Our job is to leverage our skills in the basic science and discovery early validation in field, then find ways to work with the ag majors.

The goal is to get started ASAP, while avoiding signing away all the rights [to what is discovered], and that’s generally the way that co-operation has progressed. [In our Monsanto partnership], we gave them a free, non-exclusive research license and deferred the negotiations on an exclusive in soybeans, and they have 3.5 years to execute a license.

Open Innovation and the New Customer

“There are fewer doors to knock on for sure,” Peoples said. “But a lot of tech is cross-licensed to maximize potential, anyway. Syngenta sells RoundUp Ready and DowDupont also.”

In short, a good technology always went around the world by finding one owner who cross-licensed it, and that process, if anything, has become more simple. What’s different now is the fewer companies to partner with on targets and the companies themselves are sprawling giants.

“In talking to them we hear the words more and more: open innovation,” Peoples noted. “That’s a recognition that, for yield, the internal R&D programs are not that successful. There’s been many billions spent increasing yield, but not as much in the way of success as had been hoped. If you can develop the tools, there’s a place for you.”

The Bottom Line

For sure, row crop yield is to agriculture as America was to Columbus, a vast, mysterious world ready for something new. Yield10 has certainly made the transition over to its new focus, and is now focused on serving the majors with traits rather than bringing whole molecules to market. Even in these merger-manic times, we expect they’ll find smoother waters for sailing than in the old Metabolix days. 

Looking at the issues more broadly, a friend writes:

“It is hard to get excited about a new wave of promised GMO grain crops with increased yields (+25% rice, +10% corn) when we know nothing of the methods used and nothing of the potential side-effects.  In fact, all we have are empty promises.  Plants have trade-offs. To increase yield, invariably, you must sacrifice something else. To genetically modify a plant sometimes questionable practices might be used…GMO products are not inherently bad and they have their place, but we must understand that place.”

That does a pretty good job of summarizing the reasons to be cautious about the benefits of this technology wave, and we’ll continue to watch this space as the story emerges.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.