Call Waiting, Biofuels, Genetics and You

September 3, 2013 |

wow-callWaitingPolyploidy – no, it’s not a carpet fiber, or a disease that years ago carried Grandma away. It’s something that could change biofuels, food, feed and fiber forever — and the company in the lead, Kaiima, just raised $65 million.

So, let’s review the state of the art.

Consider this situation. You are awaiting a life-changing phone call, and you don’t ant to miss it. You don’t need a second phone number – in fact, that would just overcomplicate things.

What you really need is Call Waiting — a way of “doubling up” on your phone’s DNA, so to speak, so that the opportunities for connecting two people for a transformative phone call are inestimably improved.

In the world of genetics, making connections between traits found in two genomes so that somehting transformative results — well, that’s known as hybridization. That Call Waiting feature, the doubling up of the DNA to make connections happen more often and more profoundly — that’s polyploidy.

Sign. Genetics, like everything, has a jargon all it’s own.

But it’s true — double up on the number of copies of DNA in the genome — and you increase the opportunities for interesting optimizations. Could be yield, could be drought-tolerance, could be disease resistance.

In the case of you — after all, you may feel very much like a Supreme Being, but really you are a hotel for residential bacteria that outnumber your human cells by 10 to 1 — , you have 46 chromosomes, or rather two complete pairs of 23 each. Which make you a diploid – two sets.

The number of chromosomes differs for plants, but also the number of pairs. Some have one set — halploids. Some are diploids. Some have more than two sets — polyploids.

It’s a theoretical advantage that’s been known for decades — but now along comes Kaiima with an industrial-strength version of a technology that it says translates the theoretical into the actual.

That’s the, as we say, theoretical. But when Kaiima raises $65 million in an investment round; well, it’s time to evaluate the progress.

More about Kaiima

The company started up in 2006, and by 2009, the results were starting to show in castor beans. Castor oil is a good source for a variety of applications, including biofuels — but castor seed yields have been in the range of 1.5-1.6 tonnes per hectare, not quite enough to make it viable for biofuels.

Kaiima’s technology — which doubled the castor genome in size without damaging the DNA — is not, by the way, a form of genetic engineering or modification (in fact, the polypoidal transformation occurs spontaneously in nature, though unpredictably). Yield? Between 5 and 10 tonnes per hectare in various field trials.

By 2011, we were reporting that Kaiima has raised $18 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and current investors Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) and DFJ Tamir Fishman Ventures Ltd., bring the venture to a total of $26 million in financing.

By then, the company said it has had success in 30 different plant varieties, and that it is running projects to multiply castor, jatropha, rapeseed, rice, and wheat. It says CGM can boost productivity as much as two-fold by multiplying a plant’s genome, without damaging its DNA.

By last year, it had moved decisively into wheat technology via a deal with Saaten Union, which combined Kaiima’s enhanced polyploidal technology with its own Croisor hybridization technology to bring forward the first 12-ploid wheat hybrids — wheat usually has six sets of chromosomes (hexaploidy). Saaten Union has described the increase in wheat grain and straw yield as “spectacular” and also said that it expects improvement in protein content and quality. The hybrids are expected to be registered, starting in France, in 2015 and commercial seeds are expected to become available as soon as 2017.

“Wheat is already a hybrid of three ancestors, making it a hexaploid (6x),” Saaten’s director of research, Dr. Volker Lein, told journalists “Kaiima has developed dodecaploid wheat. It’s slightly larger, its ear is slightly bigger, but significantly, it has more DNA. That means the potential for hybrid crosses is greatly increased –– you can create more of everything and more of anything.”

The biofuels challenge and opportunity

Kaiima’s website states: “Biofuels are projected to capture a third of the total growth in fuel supplies during this coming decade. This poses a daunting challenge for the world’s agriculture industry because of limited land and water resources, as well as competition with food crops.

To meet this challenge, Kaiima uses EP and other advanced and proprietary genomic-based breeding technologies to develop high-yielding EP energy crops for bio-diesel, bio-ethanol, and biomass energy.

With our high yields, fuel from castor oil can be economically competitive with the price of petroleum and can be made available on very large scales. Our varieties are suitable for mechanized farming and harvesting on marginal and under-utilized land. We emphasize compactness as well as drought and salt tolerance.

Food and fuel

But if Kaiima is expected to have impact on fuels — even more so in the yields for traditional food crops. The technology has been demonstrated in testing to have an impact on corn and rapeseed, in addition to the afore-mentioned wheat and castor. In all, 30 crops.

“By 2050, farmers will be tasked to produce 70% more food than they do today to sustain the growing world population,” said Dr. Doron Gal, chief executive officer of Kaiima. “This is a daunting challenge that modern agricultural technology must rise up to meet. The strategic alliance we have formed with our new investors fuels our rapid advances in yield enhancement technology, and positions Kaiima to become an outstanding participant in the global fight against hunger.”

The capital raise

This week, Kaiima announced today it has raised more than US$65 million in equity from three new investors as well as some current ones. The three new investors are:  Horizons Ventures, which manages the private investments of Mr. Li Ka-shing in Internet and technology globally;  the International Financial Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group and Infinity Group, the leading cross-border, China-focused, private equity fund and innovation platform. Existing investors include: DFJ, DFJ-Tamir Fishman, Mitsui, KPCB, Oberlee and Musea Ventures.

In other words, think China. That country has been on a significant march for some time in developing land resources to provide for its fast-growing food needs. At the same time,the Chinese have taken a strong interest in crop technology to enhance yield.

“Infinity’s investment in Kaiima is at the heart of its strategy to invest in world-leading Israeli technology companies with high impact potential in the Chinese market,” said Mark Chess, a managing director at Infinity Group.  “We are convinced that Kaiima’s technology is a game changer for the agricultural industry.  With China’s increasing urbanization and growing middle class, the requirement for a significantly greater food supply is a critical imperative.  Kaiima’s ability to increase yield and food production for major crops such as wheat, corn and rice provides a tremendous opportunity. Infinity is honored to collaborate with its new co-investors IFC and Horizons Ventures to assist Kaiima in its pursuit of global opportunities.”

The bottom line

As we continue to report in the Digest, agricultural technology continues to prove out that there is no fundamental, irresolvable conflict between the use of biomass for a wide variety of cases — fiber, fuel, feed and food.

As population increases, so does the demand for biomass — yet, what we have seen is that productivity is more than addressing the challenge. There are, for example, more calories consumed today by people, on average, than at any time in human history.

But — with figures like “70% growth in food demand”, the search is urgent for new technologies that do the hard yards of translating goals into on-the-ground yields. Polyploidy has been much discussed, much hoped for over the years — as a path to enhanced productivity. Kaiima’s progress suggests that this faith is well-placed — that traditional cross-hybridization still has much to offer us in yield and quality enhancement.

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