NCBiotech Ag Forum Highlights Young Companies Harnessing Innate Plant Protections
Mosquito season is upon us. Time for repellents and smack-downs.
But when plants are attacked by pathogens, pests or environmental stress, they can’t slap or run away, observed Mariola Kopcinski, Ph.D., MBA, director of scientific alliances at Raleigh-based Plant Health Care. So, “They react to stress in different ways.”
Kopcinski and John Kruse, Ph.D., director of global agronomy with PlantResponse Biotech, a Spanish company with U.S. headquarters at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Landing Pad, told a forum this week how their companies are harnessing peptides and metabolites to boost the innate immune response in plants.
The speakers headlined NCBiotech’s most recent Ag Biotech Professional Forum, a regular series of events bringing together people interested in the new directions of agriculture.
One of several ways plants protect themselves via innate immunity is via antimicrobial peptides. In addition to targeting fungal, bacterial and other pathogens, some can even be directed against insects. Plants also make secondary defensive metabolites.
Plant Health Care’s PREtec platform, Kopcinski explained, selectively activates a plant’s innate immunity defenses via PREtec patented signal peptides. The company’s small peptide products are compatible with conventional crop protection agents and perform synergistically with them, Kopcinski said.
The company’s first family of peptides was Innatus 3G, which can be applied to seeds or foliage, and creates a “hypersensitivity response” creating defense against stresses in treated plants. Field trials in the Midwest over four years showed harvest yields of corn and soy are improved.
Other patented peptide products in development at Plant Health Care elicit a defense against nematodes, leading to less damage; are biostimulants that improve early root development and nutrient uptake; and provide resistance to drought, heat, cold, bacteria, viruses, and fungal pathogens.
The peptides, Kopcinski said, augment the plant’s capacity to mobilize its cellular responses. The peptides don’t actually enter the plant. They send signals through the cell membranes, stimulating the plant’s response. They leave no residue, breaking down after a few days.
The peptides are produced synthetically or by fermentation, the workhorse of the biotech world.
Plant Health Care generally takes a product to the concept level, then works with a partner to further commercialize it. It also works with many universities, including North Carolina State.
Kruse, of Plant Response, said new technologies addressing plant innate immunity are “a shift in the paradigm using the science of nature.”
The company’s products evolved from a Madrid researcher’s work on plant innate immunity. Its products offer protection against a variant of plant stresses.
Its Neptunion, for instance, is a plant metabolite that reduces the adverse affects of drought in vegetables and cereals such as barley and corn. It is used as a seed treatment, through irrigation, or a foliar treatment.
Its PRB-33 is a chemically synthesized version of a plant metabolite naturally induced by stresses such as cold, heat, salinity, and drought. Its advantages, Kruse said, include “mitigating stresses common to many field growing conditions. It increases the survival rate of stressed plants.”
The metabolite causes a priming effect, making plants switch on genes that help them survive drought. It also lowers turnover of amino acids, lipids and peptides, so the plant uses less energy. In various trials, it increased yields from 22 to 32 percent.
In the case of both companies, many of these technologies are still undergoing field trials and laboratory development and refinement.
It’s interesting to note that several startups presenting at the Biotech Center’s recent Crop, Animal, and Food Tech Showcase in Durham are also working on innate plant immunity technologies. They include Ascribe Bioscience in New York, and Innate Immunity in New Mexico.