An Israeli company is working on technology that would use techniques that are largely considered safe to create new varieties of tomatoes, rice and corn that would better serve the needs of food processors worldwide.
Rehovot-based Evogene is working on a sweeter tomato that would save manufacturers in the $21 billion a year ketchup industry from adding sugar during the production process.
Sweeter tomatoes and foods with enriched vitamins and minerals through bioengineering are nothing new, but Evogene, a subsidiary of the Israeli biopharmaceuticals firm Compugen, says it is using different techniques than the previous crop of agricultural biotechnology companies. The company is transferring genes between plants in the same family rather using transgenics, which involves transferring genes from one plant to another.
Transgenics has raised strong opposition in the past from some environmental groups that fear the creation of plants that will produce unsafe foods and damage the environment. Outcry from these groups has hampered the prospects of some agricultural biotechnology companies.
Evogene’s founders say that some of the other advantages of the company’s technologies include improved capability to discover genes and DNA regulatory elements in plants; the ability to generate computer predictions of the genetic behavior in the plants before the actual stage of an experiment; the development of mechanisms in the genomic and molecular field that allow Evogene to insert large quantities of genes and DREs into plants, which then express the gene’s behavior and can be examined.
The company is experimenting in a broad range of other areas in an effort to meet a host of markets for modified plants:
- Evogene is blending the knowledge accumulated from modern genome research with classical farming methods, such as crossbreeding, which is used to improve the positive qualities of plants. If, for example, a particular plant thrives on salty water, this property can be enhanced so that it will grow in salty soil, like that of Israel’s Negev Desert.
- The company is working on a deal with an agrochemicals company that wants a tomato impervious to a chemical it uses, so that the chemical will kill only pests, not the fruit.
- In addition to enhancing the properties of plants, Evogene is involved in the $30 billion-per-year plant protection field to develop the plants’ ability to withstand biological pests, such as bacteria, viruses, worms, and parasitic plants. It is also developing plants that will be hardier in poor-quality soil and less vulnerable to weather damage. The goal is to make it possible to grow crops in areas with harsh natural conditions.
- This week, Evogene announced the signing of its first contract to produce medicines from plants. The technology is based on a plant’s absorption of human genes and the subsequent production of proteins. This technology will replace current technology, which produces proteins either via animals or by fermenting bacterial cultures.
- Evogene is developing miniature plants in order to accelerate its experimentation. It took Evogene a year to produce a miniature tomato plant. The miniaturization makes it possible to work with a large plant population in a small amount of space since the smaller plants go through three growing seasons of tomatoes per year, compared with just over one growing season per year with regular-sized tomato plants.
So far, the company has been financed entirely by Compugen, but Ofer Haviv, Evogene’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer, said that about a month ago the company began a round of financing in the hope of raising $5 million to $7.5 million from venture capital funds in Israel and around the world.
The effort is being spearheaded by Evogene’s management, assisted by an advisory board that includes Compugen Chairman Martin Gerstel and former Compugen Chairman David Haselkorn, who is chief executive of Clal Biotechnology Industries and is on Compugen’s board of directors.