Looking back over the past several decades, Ponsi Trivisvavet says genetic improvement has added less than 1% yield improvement per year for corn. She believes genetic improvement will have to occur much faster to meet expected future global demand for food and address the impact of climate change on farming.
Trivisvavet is the CEO of Inari, a private genetics company that believes incorporating new techniques in genetics and data management with traditional plant breeding will significantly impact how fast plant breeders can bring new, improved-yielding material to market.
“When our methods are fully instituted, we believe it will shorten development time for a new corn hybrid from 10 years to three years, and cut costs by 90% at the same time,” Trivisvavet says.
Here is Farm Progress’ exclusive interview with Trivisvavet:
What is the basic concept that will improve efficiency of plant breeding? One of the techniques our staff uses is gene editing. Instead of inserting a gene from a different organism, as happens with genetically modified, or GMO, traits, our goal is editing existing genes. This is possible today because of the revolution in data production and analysis. It enables us to produce and understand genome sequences to get to the crop genes that are responsible for complex traits and edit them very precisely.
Why does gene editing offer more potential for yield increases? The simplest form of gene editing is to remove or insert a gene of that same organism. Inari has exclusive access to technology which also allows us to turn up or turn down expression of a gene, rather than just turning genes on or off. It’s like turning a dimmer switch on a light to make it dimmer or brighter. But the key to applying these technologies at the breeding scale is multiplex gene editing. That means we can improve several genes at once.
Traits like drought resistance aren’t controlled by just one gene. You need to modify the expression of multiple genes. Work by our data analysis team helps us determine which genes to turn up and which genes to turn down. We then combine this genetic knowledge to define the best combination of edits to perform for a crop to improve a trait for a specific environment.
The research director at a major seed company says epigenetics will be the next breakthrough after gene editing. What is epigenetics? Epigenetics are changes that modify gene expression without changing the genetic code. Think of it like doing an exercise workout. After the workout, the muscles in your arm feel different because of chemical changes during the workout. Yet genes inside the muscle didn’t change. These technologies allow us to change the environment around genes, causing changes in gene expression, without changing the gene sequences themselves.
A court ruling in Europe several months ago claimed that gene-edited crops would be treated like GMO crops. Is this an obstacle? The USDA in this country has been very clear that gene editing is not a GMO technique — no genes from outside organisms are introduced. We are very hopeful that Europe will eventually come to the same conclusion.
What is your company like today? We have locations in Boston, West Lafayette (Ind.) and Belgium. Altogether, we have 140 employees. We have computer data scientists on board, especially at the Boston location, doing data analysis to help speed up selection. We have two locations in the Purdue University Research Park, plus a greenhouse facility. We also have traditional plant breeders on our staff. Epigenetics work primarily occurs in Belgium.
Our goal is to sell parent seed through independent seed companies. Our first corn hybrids are very competitive and are being sold by independent seed companies now. Gene editing was not used to produce these first hybrids. We have proprietary genetic material plus access to off-patent intellectual property. We can improve it using various techniques.
Will we see the name Inari on a seed bag? We’re happy working through independent seed companies to market our products. We were a startup company, but we now see ourselves in the growth phase. Inari has a scientific strategy board of people, which includes several of the developers of technologies we use. They visit our facilities several times per year and provide advice for improving techniques.
What will corn plants of the future be like? The architecture will likely be slightly different. However, expect future corn hybrids to perform as well or better using less fertilizer, and to become more efficient at utilizing water resources.