The science of RNA interference is proven. Already, crop protection giant Bayer has labeled the approach for control of crop pests in corn and cotton. But is there a way to advance this approach beyond transgenic crops? The folks at private equity firm TechAccel say yes.
The Kansas City, Kan.-based firm is focused on investing exclusively in plant and animal agriculture, animal health and animal nutrition startups. Supported by a group of wealthy investors, the focus is on startups and ideas that have a relationship to agriculture. The latest effort is creation of RNAissance Ag LLC, a new company that will hold the exclusive license to RNA interference technology in partnership with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. The Danforth Center is a research facility that focuses on what it calls the “nexus of food, energy and the environment to improve the productivity and sustainability of agriculture.”
For TechAccel, RNAissance — pronounced “renaissance” — is the opportunity to work toward commercializing a new way to put RNA interference (RNAi) to work. Part of the announcement for the new company was news that the equity firm had participated in the latest funding round for GreenLight Biosciences Inc., a startup that has technology advancing biopesticides. GreenLight’s tech includes the manufacture of targeted RNA, according to Brad Fabbri, TechAccel chief scientific officer. In essence, the equity partners are doing a package move in the world of RNA interference.
RNA interference is a very specific way to “mess up” a key biological process in a pest. The specificity is so high that other insects can consume the same “toxin” with no ill effects. Fabbri notes, however, that the cost of RNA has been as high as $10,000 per gram in the past. “It was cost-prohibitive to use as a kind of over-the-top spray,” he says. “But that’s changing.”
GreenLight has developed a process that can produce targeted RNA for as little as $1 per gram. It’s still in the startup stage but shows the potential. Having a source of this target RNA is one factor; the other is identifying the right target for that “bullet.”
“RNA interference is designed to interfere with an enzyme or process in the insect,” Fabbri says. “If you can get it into the insect and engage with the insect, you can have good interference.”
Where RNAaissance has potential, Fabbri says, is that the Danforth technology is working with a “different set of theories and design principles” that have not been targeted in the past. “There is a specific set of other targets, multiple targets, that are really novel … and look like they’re really effective,” he explains.
New targets and the right interfering RNA (at a lower price) could lead to a spray that farmers could use to put the tech to work. An active ingredient with this mode of action would perhaps work with other products applied at the same time to beat back troublesome bugs. There’s a lot of work ahead to put this technology in the field, including the regulatory journey.
Fabbri noted that RNAissance technology could be used in transgenic crops, too, with novel targeted approaches. Note that while the cost of producing RNA in the lab has been high, in transgenic crops the RNA is produced as the plant grows. The cost picture is different. And TechAccel is talking with major seed companies about this technology as well.
To use RNAi tech as a crop protection product requires knowing how it’s working. “We can get dead bugs, but you want to do it in a way that’s potent enough for it to kill the bug,” Fabbri says. “We have to know if we’re getting dead bugs because of the RNAi and not just drowning the bug in product.”
Fabbri doesn’t talk about the timing of bringing this tech to market, but RNAissance and GreenLight are two examples of crop science that will offer farmers more options in the future as these tools come to market. You can learn more about TechAccel at techaccel.net.