Developing 21st Century Crops for the circular economy

Rethinking plant breeding

The overarching goal of plant breeding has been to produce crop varieties that boast unique and superior traits for several agricultural applications. However, the known space of agricultural applications has expanded, and so too have the capabilities of plant breeding and engineering techniques. There is now an opportunity to transition agriculture towards materials or high value compound production and zero-waste or greenhouse gas emission goals much faster than what is currently being considered. 

Given climate change and the need for a transition to circular economies, we believe that redefining breeding targets using novel biotechnologies, but also developing novel biotechnologies for breeding in parallel, can help us meet critical goals faster. 

To this end, we’re investigating the following target outcomes:

1. Developing new crop improvement technologies that can expedite crop adaptation to novel environments, within a generation, or within the same generation - while meeting food, feed, and raw material demands.

2. Development of new crops and varieties to enable new forms of circular economy at the local, national and regional levels.

3. Developing new molecular tools to obtain genetic and epigenetic outcomes that can support the above goals.

While ultimately aimed at addressing farmers’ predicaments to secure crop production profitability, this has great potential for developing and deploying improved breeding/adaptation technologies and new high-value research tools or industrial enzymes. Together, these have the potential to unlock business opportunities in new production environments (e.g. growing crops in oceans, marginal lands, etc.).

Studying nature

While nature has inspired innovations in so many fields, bioprospecting has typically been focused on natural product discovery in the Pharmaceutical industry and has been less focused on trait discovery in wild relatives of crops. In our investigations we found relatively few efforts to identify traits for agricultural use, and none related to looking to nature to create next-gen circular economy or bioeconomy crops. It therefore seems sensible to apply the traditional bioprospecting technology suite - honed in Pharma and since expanded with machine learning and proteomics capabilities - to these new outcomes and enabling the creation of entirely novel crops or traits that could be bred into existing crops.  

Plant breeding is generally focused on “standard issue” targets: yield, harvestable output, caloric, nutrition, plant architecture, flowering time and drought resilience, and we don’t expect to focus on these too much. Other traits which might be more attractive for investigation are flavour & metabolism and flavour-life, but they wouldn’t necessarily meet the desired outcomes stated earlier. Most exciting to us are the neglected areas of traits designed to enable complete circularity of all plant tissues, namely things that could be leveraged for feedstock compound expression in plant tissues, or cell wall digestibility to enable superior utilisation in Ag Waste production cycles, and enhance circularity. Moreover, if we expand our search beyond plants into microbes, fungi and other lifeforms, isolating useful enzymes from microbes for the laboratory. 

We create ventures focused on a specific outcome within areas of need: Opportunity Areas (OA). This OA is part of the Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative, based in Costa Rica, a country which not only has the highest density of biodiversity on the planet (estimated at as much as 5% of all species), but also boasts strong institutional experience with bioprospecting. Launching a company in Costa Rica allows us to tap into this rich ecosystem; it also ensures that any work carried out is in line with international and national obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and related customs and laws around access and benefit sharing  of genetic resources. These are designed to enable fair distribution of benefits between users and providers so as to open the door for innovation, and create incentives for biodiversity conservation. Leveraging local expertise, and working within the country’s well defined procedures on bioprospecting should support the development of crops for a circular bioeconomy. 

Plant regeneration and modification

Even if we know the genes, traits or new crops that we would want to develop, there are several challenges that prevent us from getting there fast enough. We also want to break down barriers to efficient crop improvement, to open new frontiers of traits that are imagined but not achievable today. In practice, this means: shortening breeding times, developing species- and genotype-independent plant regeneration platforms, and creating approaches that enable genetic or epigenetic changes immediately without using technologies that would count as classical genetic modification. The following concepts are just a handful of many potential approaches we are exploring:

⏱ Shortening Breeding Times

Iterated embryo selection (IES) is a proposed reproductive technology that involves repeated cycles of in vitro sequencing and selection of embryos to rapidly accelerate breeding to its theoretical limit. The technology has been proposed in mammals, and is thought to be impossible in plants, as it requires access to a fruiting body, which usually only forms when a plant is mature. However, totipotent plant tissue could be obtained if plant embryos were treated with the right hormones, and then differentiated directly into a fruiting body in the absence of a whole plant. Repeated cycles that iterate plant tissues to being totipotent, then to fruiting body, and then combined with trait selection, could rapidly accelerate these plant breeding.

🧬 Enhance non-transgenic transformation improvement efforts

The regulation landscape on edited crops seems to increasingly favour non-GM classification of gene editing where transgenes are not involved. It is likely that we will look closely at genome editing or epigenetic editing, potentially in neglected crops including seaweeds, cannabis, turmeric, blackberry, aloe, and coyol. 

However, we are interested in increasing the potential of targeted chemical mutagenesis. Chemical mutagens have been widely used in crop breeding for decades, causing mutations without using GMO technology. While useful, they are not loci-specific, which has led us to the idea of developing a highly targeted or directable chemical mutagen to leverage the best of RNA-guided nucleases and non-GM mutagenesis techniques.

Create ventures with us

We have spent several months developing initial concepts with our partners on the above to overcome these central challenges. It is a hugely complex and promising opportunity area, based in Costa Rica, which we believe offers an ideal home and starting point for companies in this space. 

Companies based in the country will be able to take advantage of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, offering unparalleled opportunity to discover, apply and commercialise new biotechnology tools and plant traits, and have access to local knowledge and experience in bioprospecting. 

Further afield, the OA can support the revitalisation of classical bioprospecting approaches in order to deliver new crops and capabilities to a growing and circular bioeconomy, beyond the traditional considerations of food security. It can also leverage Costa Rica’s national microbial and plant biodiversity in a highly commercialisable manner in line with the national bioeconomy strategy. 

If this is an area of interest to you and you have experience with plant biotechnology, we want to hear from you! More details on the specifics of this role can be found in this job description.

More details on the Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative can be found here.