Food for thought

Evogene Chief Operating Officer Ofer Haviv: “We are trying to do what nature is doing, but we are directing and accelerating the changes.” While there is no endeavor as traditional as agriculture and classical plant breeding – there is no …

Evogene Chief Operating Officer Ofer Haviv: “We are trying to do what nature is doing, but we are directing and accelerating the changes.” While there is no endeavor as traditional as agriculture and classical plant breeding – there is no science as modern and cutting-edge as genomics. And an Israeli company, Evogene, is at the forefront of integrating the old and the new technologies with a specific goal: “to improve and enhance the provision of food, feed and therapeutics that will safely and efficiently feed and cure the planet.”

Genetically modified foods, or organisms (GMO), are plants that have been genetically altered by genome from other species, such as bacteria, or animals. Today, these new super plants can be bred with resistance to disease, insects, and drought, or to have specific qualities like a sweeter taste, or a higher starch content. Presently in the world, five genetically modified crops are being grown widely – cotton, maize, soya beans, corn, and canola.

GM crops were first introduced to the market about 10 years ago, and while the industry is still emerging, it is growing rapidly, with the market worth about $4 billion annually. However, there is a great deal of hostility to GM foods. In Europe, public antipathy to the crops is particularly strong, and there is an outright ban on GMO products. This ban has had a knock-on effect in many other countries around the world, including Israel, which does not import or grow GM crops.

What Evogene – a subsidiary of life sciences company Compugen – offers is a less threatening version of GM crops. Instead of introducing genes from other kingdoms such as bacteria or animal, Evogene’s evolution accelerator technology, the EvoXellerator, utilizes genes from the same plant, a process the company calls EMO (Evogene modified organism). The platform mimics, directs, and accelerates evolutionary processes in plants to avoid the limitations of genetic variation that occur in normal breeding techniques.

“This is definitely something that could happen in nature, but in nature it would take between 10 to 30 years, and millions and millions of crossings per plant,” Evogene Chief Operating Officer Ofer Haviv told The Jerusalem Post. “We are trying to do what nature is doing, but we are directing and accelerating the changes.”

Evogene is one of the few plant biotechnology companies in Israel and focuses on enhancing the traits of vegetables, such as sweetness in tomatoes or higher plant endurance in salty soil.

“Our goal,” says Evogene CEO Hagai Karchi, “is to show up at a seed company with a bag of seeds for a target plant that interests it, seeds that bear enhanced traits that interest the company. That company will then nurture the plants normally (via crossbreeding), a process that will last a year or two until the final stabilization of the seeds.”

The technology developed by Evogene genetically modifies a plant by altering its existing genetic combinations. This technology differs from the controversial methods used by other companies that enhance plant strains by introducing extraneous genetic segments, such as from a bacteria or virus.

“Evogene can develop an existing trait in a plant such that it will be manifest more strongly,” Karchi told Ha’aretz. “The modification is done by the genome of the plant itself, without the introduction of an extraneous gene. This means that we are not talking about transgenics, and are not producing something that nature would not have been able to produce through natural evolution, it would simply take nature much longer.”

In simple language, this means Evogene’s process does not involve bringing foreign genes into plants – instead, it combines the two segments of the genes already within the plant. For example, Evogene can take part of a gene responsible for sweetness and combine it with part of another gene in the same plant, responsible for the expression of the trait in the fruit. This will result in a sweeter fruit.

Evogene’s greenhouses then grow the plants being used in the project, using classic crossbreeding techniques to grow the strongest plant of that strain. At the end of this process the transcribed gene is introduced into the plant. The plant will then produce seeds that bear the enhanced traits that the company plans to market worldwide.

Karchi says that the company is currently working “to accelerate our activities related to potential agreements with agro-biotechnology partners as well as the development of our main internal projects: key trait improvements in cotton, gene and promoter discovery in monocots (rice, maize and cereals) and a proprietary platform for the production of therapeutic proteins in plants.” These proteins can be used for developing drugs and cosmetic products.

Evogene hopes to be the leading company in the process for developing plants and plant-derived products, such as cotton with longer and stronger fibers, or rice that resists pests and can grow under harsh conditions. Evogene plans to reach this goal by integrating computational biology and plant genomics with classical breeding.

At present, Karchi believes that Evogene is the only company offering a viable alternative to the more extreme GMO market. Competitors include the research departments of big name biotech players such as Dow AgriSciences. In the long term, however, he says he does not really view them as rivals, but more as partners.

“It’s a huge field, no one can do everything,” Haviv told the Post. “With the recession, and the problems over the GMO issue, these companies are looking for outsourcing. They know they cannot do everything alone.”

Aside from the EvoXellerator, Evogene offers customers a number of different products, which together form an integrated service. Firstly, it offers an advanced computational tool, adapted from Compugen’s LEADS research engine, which can help customers predict and isolate sets of high quality gene and promoter candidates in specific problem areas. This capability helps reduce a major bottleneck in today’s product development sector.

The company also offers a promoter mining tool (ProMine), which can generate a library of thousands of predicted DNA regulatory elements. In addition it offers high throughput breeding (HTB), which can rapidly identify desirable traits generated by the EvoXellerator, and can also deliver breeding projects in a shorter time and lower cost than traditional techniques, according to the company. This was initially implemented in the tomato, and is now being expanded to other crops.

To manage these different tools, Evogene has created a proprietary information management system to track the vast amount of data generated. This data base manages the knowledge created in the development process.