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Genes found in the desert inspire drought-tolerant crop trial

PlantArcBio, an Israeli start-up, will try out its new soybean genes at the University of Wisconsin

by Melody M. Bomgardner
July 11, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 29

Farmers struggling with slight or unpredictable rainfall may someday get an assist from evolution. That’s the plan of PlantArcBio, an Israeli crop trait start-up that has been prospecting for genes in the desert.

This image shows young Arabidopsis plants, a model species, being raised in a research greenhouse.
Credit: PlantArcBio
PlantArcBio tests drough-tolerance genes in Arabidopsis, a model plant used in research.

The company has raised $3 million from private investors and Israel Innovation Authority grants. And it will work with plant scientists and agriculture experts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to test its drought-tolerance genes at the school’s crop innovation center.

Most crop genetics firms look for stretches of potentially useful DNA in databases of genes from familiar plants, but PlantArcBio takes its gene samples from the environment. When the company’s scientists find genes in plants—or even animals, insects, or fungi—that are unique to species or varieties that can withstand desert conditions, they add them to a gene pool for further testing in model plants.

The company raises model plants modified with the hoped-for drought genes in controlled, dry conditions. From plants that survive and thrive, it selects a group of genes worth further study in target crops such as soybeans and corn. If the soybean trials at the University of Wisconsin show positive results, PlantArcBio plans to sell the genes to seed companies.

According to a study by the university, changes in weather patterns due to climate change have cost U.S. soybean farmers about $11 billion in yield losses over the past 20 years (Nature Plants, 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2014.26).

“Working together to improve soybean drought tolerance could lead to major breakthroughs in the agricultural realm that would also benefit farmers in the U.S.,” says Michael Petersen, associate director of the school’s crop innovation center.


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