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STOPPING CROP DISEASE: A North Carolina startup is using advanced genomics to identify effective biological products for crop protection. Early products offer disease control in specialty crops, with little or no harvest wait time.

Biological startup carving new niche

AgBiome is really getting to know the biological processes of pests and diseases, offering new ways to boost crop potential.

It’s hard for farmers to get a handle on what genomics might mean for their business. Seed companies have a better idea of the traits they need in specific plants, and they know what performs where. For livestock, the science is opening doors to enhancements and productivity, too.

But what about crop protection? Turns out the more you know about the “enemy,” the more likely you are to find new ways to stop it from robbing crop yields.

That’s the science approach behind AgBiome, an ag startup based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that’s using genomic science to get a much deeper look at how insects and diseases work — and what biological tools may be brought to bear for their control.

The company has already identified more than 3,500 insect control genes that could be targets for the future. And researchers at the firm have sequenced genomes from its microbial strain collection.

What does it all mean? Biological science is about getting into the secret life of plants, pests and diseases to find those chinks in the armor that can result in new ways to control problems.

Eric Ward, AgBiome co-founder and co-CEO, points to glyphosate resistance as one area where there are opportunities. “One of the critical facts is that we’re not finding new modes of action for herbicides at the rate the industry had from the dawn of the agrochemical industry after World War II until about 20 years ago,” he notes. “For new mode-of-action chemistry today, microbial communities are a great source. And there are really interesting chemistries at work.”

Biological control isn’t a new idea, and a lot of investment is pouring into this market segment — which can provide a faster track from lab to field, given that these products are often viewed as more environmentally benign than synthetic chemistry.

AgBiome does have two products on the market — using the same active ingredient. Howler and Zio are fungicide products that tackle fungus and disease in specialty crops for Howler fungicide, and golf courses for Zio fungicide, which is marketed and sold for AgBiome by SePro Corp.

“These products have multiple modes of action,” says Toni Bucci, chief operating officer, AgBiome Innovations, which is the commercial arm of AgBiome. “We’re using a specific strain of Pseudomonas chlororaphis, which are highly efficacious against a range of fungal and oomycetes diseases, yet offer the benefits of a biopesticide.”

The two products are also on the approved list for use in organic production under the Organic Materials Research Institute standard, she points out.

Creating a biological platform

A startup has to bring innovation to the table, and AgBiome is doing that with its Genesis platform. “The Genesis platform allows us to produce a full sequence of microbes and bioinformatic information, looking at the brothers and sisters of those microbes to find what’s active,” Bucci says. This allows the company to more quickly identify those that are more efficacious against specific target molecules.

And Bucci adds that AgBiome has another advantage. “We have a unique culture here, and the grower can see the result of that,” she says. “We’re expert-driven, nimble, and can focus on and address grower needs quickly.”

AgBiome has a healthy pipeline of bio-based products, including a herbicide, in the works. But Ward points out that being biological-based doesn’t mean they’re aiming in only one direction.

“Our process can also be led into a novel route for creation of synthetic pesticides,” he explains. “We may find a novel natural compound and a new way to kill target plants. We can sell that as an extract of the microbe, and it’s marketable. It might cost a lot to make it as a biological, but may be more valuable as a synthetic.”

A good example of biological activity turned into a successful herbicide would be Syngenta’s mesotrione. The mode of action was discovered in a plant, but later synthesized into a more effective compound — Callisto.

Value of biologicals

While synthetic chemistry offers options, biologicals have a range of advantages. A critical advantage, especially for food crops, is the ability to apply a biological and have a short — or nonexistent — harvest wait time. This way, product can be applied right up to harvest, and the producer still have no worries going to the end customer. This also has value in the livestock market, where later-applied fungicides might have value for food crops.

For now, AgBiome is focused on specialty crops, where volumes are lower and margins are often higher. Eventually, however, this technology will be moving farther into the row crop world. And the tech being deployed in biologicals keeps evolving. You can learn more at agbiome.com.

 

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