The biblical Joseph foresaw in a dream a seven-year drought and subsequently guided Egypt’s rulers to set aside enough stores of wheat to survive it. Today, climate change has ushered in a new era of drought – and this time there’s no end in sight. The drought of 2012, for example, covered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States and caused some $40 billion in agricultural damage.
If Joseph were alive today, he might very well pick up the phone and call Israeli startup PlantArcBio. Like Joseph, PlantArcBio’s founder and CEO Dror Shalitin has a vision to help the planet cope with less rainfall. This time, it’s based on science, not dreams.
Shalitin’s company aims to make some of the world’s most important crops more drought-tolerant by adding specific genes found in regions that traditionally receive little water. Israel has plenty of places to look for that, in particular the ever-parched Dead Sea area and the southern Negev and Arava deserts.
PlantArcBio’s big idea is that at least some of the genes found there can help other plants survive in low-water conditions. The question is: how do you find the right genes?
Shalitin’s previous job was at Evogene, which uses sophisticated computational tools to discover which genes will help which plants thrive in different conditions or to develop greater resistance to certain types of plant pests that might otherwise require large amounts of herbicide.
But using computers to match gene to plant is expensive and time consuming, Shalitin tells ISRAEL21c. Moreover, it requires starting with a firm hypothesis of which genes might be best suited for the end result.
Shalitin had a different idea. Why not ditch the high-tech computer analysis and let nature decide?
Instead of relying on simulations, PlantArcBio collects actual soil and water samples from the Dead Sea area. These samples are filled with millions of genes from tens of thousands of plants, animals, viruses, fungi and micro-organisms.
“We don’t have to know in advance what genes we have inside the sample,” Shalitin explains. “We just make the assumption that there will be genes that help micro-organisms survive in an area that suffers from drought.”
PlantArcBio then isolates the genes from the soil “soup” it’s collected and, using specialized agro-bacteria, inserts the genes into model plants – one gene per plant. A model plant is one that more easily accepts foreign genes. PlantArcBio is using a flowering plant called Arabidopsis that is related to cabbage and mustard.
PlantArcBio places the plants – yes, there are a million of them for all those genes, but they’re small – in a greenhouse designed to mimic desert conditions, though it is located far from the Dead Sea near PlantArcBio’s headquarters in Givat Hen, between Ra’anana and Hod HaSharon in Israel’s coastal plain.
And then they wait. The plants that don’t die – about 1 percent of the total – can be determined to have helpful genes. These are then tested with a larger model plant – tobacco – before moving on to the real target: soybeans, corn and rapeseed (the source of canola oil).
“The plants with the best genes showed an improvement of 10 to 15 percent” in dealing with drought conditions, Shalitin explains.
Soybeans are particularly important for PlantArcBio – and for the planet. PlantArcBio quotes studies showing that US soybean crop yields have fallen by 2.4% for each one degree rise in temperature.
Needle in a haystack
PlantArcBio, which was founded in 2014, has so far identified about 100 genes (out of a million tested) that help plants become more drought tolerant.
“It’s as if we actually managed to find the needle in the haystack,” Shalitin quips. Some of these genes have never been seen before and are not in any existing gene database (like the ones computer-based plant genetic companies rely on).
For the final test, PlantArcBio has partnered with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “They are champions in soybeans and have state-of-the-art facilities,” Shalitin says.
The partnership was announced in July, along with a $3 million investment in PlantArcBio from angel investors and the Israeli government. PlantArcBio currently employs nine people.
The company’s goal is to sign development agreements for its genes, which will not be limited in the future to drought tolerance. “We’re in advanced discussions with a few companies,” Shalitin says, although he couldn’t share which companies just yet.
PlantArcBio – the name combines “plant,” “architecture” and “biology” – is coming of age at a time when worldwide drought is not only decimating crops but causing political instability. The American Security Project reports, for example, that “climate change is inextricably linked to national security” and that the 2011 Arab Spring was triggered in part by drought and reduced agricultural activity.
The solution to some of the world’s greatest environmental and political threats, it seems, may very well start in a genetic “soup” found at the lowest spot on earth, courtesy of a scrappy Israeli startup.
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