Plant technology about to go viral

16 Oct 2018

Author: Simon Webster

Photography: Supplied


Plant breeding technology developed at the University of Queensland is producing crops that can resist viruses and introduce other economically valuable traits, a development that could have an enormous impact on world food production.
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Many of the world’s crops may soon be able to fight off viruses without the use of chemical sprays, thanks to plant breeding technology developed at the University of Queensland.

With two research collaborations with multinational corporations already under its belt and a green light from United States regulators, Nexgen Plants believes it can have a huge impact on the multibillion-dollar global problem of viral crop disease. 

The key to the technology’s potential is that virus resistance, and other traits, are introduced by manipulating the plant’s existing genetics. 

“We’re not introducing any foreign DNA,” Nexgen Company Director Brian Ruddle says. “This makes things much easier from a regulatory point of view. We’re replicating natural breeding, but doing it quicker and in a more targeted way. 

“The Nexgen technology can also be used to introduce other economically important traits into crops around the world including drought and salt tolerance, pest and disease resistance, and improve productivity.  This technology will reduce the need for spraying and reduce wastage. A lot has been written about how we have to enhance the world’s food production. This could have a large impact.”

Leading labs

A University of Queensland team led by Professor Peer Schenk developed the first Nexgen technology in 2009 after identifying small RNA molecules used by viruses to modulate the plant.

The researchers looked at ways of using this discovery to breed virus resistance into plants.

“Based on the successful virus resistance work, they came up with an intragenic breeding approach that can be applied to different production, consumer and disease resistance traits,” Ruddle says. 

“Let’s say there’s a trait of salt tolerance in maize corn. If we know that trait sequence we can look in a vegetable crop, say tomato, and replicate that gene sequence using the tomato’s own genome. We can replicate the foreign trait without introducing anything foreign.

“We have produced heart-shaped tomatoes, increased anthocyanin (pigment) levels to create purple tomatoes and produced virus resistant tomatoes. Now we are focusing on salt tolerance and increased aromatics in rice. There’s a whole range of different applications.”

Rice, corn and tomatoes are, incidentally, among the world’s major food crops.

After Professor Schenk’s breakthrough, the University of Queensland’s commercialisation entity, UniQuest, provided proof-of-concept funding and took on the task of turning the research into reality. 

An Australian Government grant in 2012, which facilitated packaging and pitching of the commercial opportunity by UniQuest, was followed by funding from Australian venture capital firms Yuuwa Capital and Uniseed, enabling UniQuest to form Nexgen Plants. 

“The company would not have been formed without the expertise of Australian research,” Ruddle says. 

Multinationals get on board 

Nexgen soon had two big international collaborative research and development projects tied up: one with a food and beverage multinational, involving the identification of virus trait targets for a crop; and the other, with the agribusiness multinational, Syngenta. 

“The focus is to get virus resistance into Syngenta’s elite lines for a particular vegetable crop,” Ruddle says.

Nexgen then received a vital boost, when, in March 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled that the technology was not genetic modification (GM).

With Nexgen classified as a non-GM technology, and spared the time and expense of GM regulatory demands  – in the United States, at least – Nexgen can now focus on putting some further commercial deals in place. 

“The next step is engaging with plant breeders to identify which traits are of interest, and then working with these plant breeders so they can introduce those traits into their crops,” he says. 

“So far we’ve mostly worked with tomatoes, potatoes, sorghum and rice, but we’re expanding the program out into a range of other crops.”

Thinking global

With the Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator currently reviewing whether new gene technologies such as Nexgen, CRISPR and TALENs should be subject to the same regulatory demands as GM techniques, Nexgen has its sights set firmly overseas. 

“Initially the US is the focus, then we will potentially spread into southeast Asian, African and some European countries,” Ruddle says. “It’s wait-and-see for us in Australia.”

A further $3 million round of funding in 2018 – half from existing investors and half from the Queensland Government’s Business Development Fund – is helping Nexgen ramp up its business development focus. 

Australia’s agtech startups are attracting more and more international attention, Ruddle says. 

“Australia’s reputation in agtech is growing, and investors and multinationals are increasingly reviewing Australian technologies.”

Find out more about Nexgen Plants.