CROPS ARE MOLECULAR FACTORIES WITH GREAT POTENTIAL
Agriculture has long played a central role in human society, providing food, fiber, and other products that sustain life. As the world's population continues to grow, there is an increasing need for sustainable and efficient ways to produce these vital resources. The bioeconomy, which involves the production of goods and services from renewable biological resources, offers a promising solution to this challenge.
One way to support the growth of the bioeconomy is through developing new crops and varieties that can be used to create circular systems at various scales. Crops are, in a way, “molecular factories”, because they can produce a range of products, including food, biofuels, bioplastics, and other biobased chemicals, as well as using waste material as feedstocks for the industry. Expanding the range of products produced from crops may create new opportunities for value creation and support the growth of local, regional, and national bioeconomies, particularly as nations and corporations aim to fulfill their policies and goals to wean themselves off petrochemical inputs.
TRAITS OF THE FUTURE
Developing new crops and varieties with new traits is a complex task. We will need to make predictions about how climates, technologies, economies and societies will change, all of which are difficult to foresee with current models and behaviours. This task will be made even harder as many elements of these systems will change in a positive manner in one place, only to have great impacts elsewhere. A contemporary example can be seen in the development of dwarf wheat varieties, which have helped farmers achieve superior grain yield outcomes whilst reducing water use, irrigation needs, and enhanced resilience to high winds. However, the transition to dwarf wheat has been detrimental to cattle and dairy farmers, who have traditionally relied on the hay from the wheat stems, and have become increasingly unavailable, increasing livestock costs and reliance on other forms of silage. The rise of the bioeconomy will precipitate rapid changes, such that complex situations and unpredictable outcomes will become more common.
To fully exploit the emerging opportunities of a bioeconomy, a shift in mindset is needed, one that actively goes beyond valuing only the edible parts of plants, but instead looks to develop the value of entire plant systems. All shoot and root systems could potentially bring value to a bioeconomy if appropriately developed, but this will require targeting novel traits within the established crops and even in plants not considered crops over the course of the last few centuries. This means a huge genotypic and phenotypic space could be actively explored to make novel gains. However, given the urgency with which we need to transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy, we need to be able to obtain these traits at a speed that was previously impossible - requiring step changes in breeding, domestication, and selection technologies.
Ideally we would be able to develop the next generation of crops that drive the bioeconomy, without compromising on targets for achieving enhanced nutritional and caloric security. With this in mind, three potential approaches could be pursued:
We could aim to develop traits within established food or feed crops, ensuring that the newly introduced traits are synergistic with the established traits rather than in competition. For example, leftover agricultural residue with better digestibility properties for downstream processes, such as the development of novel plant-based protein alternatives, industrial feedstock, or specialty compound production.
We could introduce new crops into an existing agricultural regime without seeing a yield loss within the existing food crops. For example, fallow-season or perennial crops could deliver products for the bioeconomy while offering environmental benefits that subsequently lead to yield gains from food crops.
It could be possible to develop high-yielding crops for the bioeconomy that can be cultivated in environments unsuitable for food production, removing direct competition for space and resources or enabling their production in a land-efficient manner.
With any scenario, many of the same fundamental challenges apply, which require creating technologies that can develop novel crops for the bioeconomy at a scale and pace that was previously impossible.
We know that crops are great "molecular factories," or "bioreactors", of valuable compounds that benefit society (i.e., food, feed, and raw materials for manufacturing) and the environment (i.e., soil health, biodiversity, and climate), thus being an excellent starting point to enable circular bioeconomies. These compounds can be present in crops, or the crops themselves are a cost-effective alternative to produce such compounds if they are engineered. Plant breeding and biotechnology technologies have enabled the use of crops in this manner. However, even in the era of advanced breeding and precise genetic engineering, these technologies have yet to achieve the full potential of crops because fundamental challenges remain unaddressed. Our research identified two significant challenges that must be overcome to develop new crops and varieties to enable new forms of circular bioeconomy at the local, national, and regional levels: shortening breeding cycles and increasing genetic engineering efficiency.
♻️ Shortening breeding cycles
Traditional breeding techniques can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, and there is a need to develop new approaches that can speed up the process of developing new crops and varieties. This could involve using techniques such as somatic variation, double haploid development, and mutagenesis, as well as using computational tools to optimize breeding strategies. For example, iterated embryo selection (IES) is a proposed reproductive technology that involves repeated cycles of in vitro sequencing and selection of embryos to rapidly accelerate breeding to its theoretical limit. The technology has been proposed in mammals and is thought impossible in plants, as it requires access to a fruiting body, which usually only forms when a plant is mature. However, totipotent plant tissue could be obtained if plant embryos were treated with the right hormones and differentiated directly into a fruiting body without a whole plant. Repeated cycles that iterate plant tissues to being totipotent, then to the fruiting body, and then combined with trait selection, could rapidly accelerate these plant breeding.
📈 Increasing genetic engineering efficiencies
The ability to regenerate plants from tissue or cell cultures highly depends on the species and genotype used. By developing platforms capable of regenerating a wide range of plant species and genotypes, it may be possible to expand the scope of crops used in the bioeconomy significantly since cutting edge technologies, such as gene editing, could be easily implemented to maximize crop potential and output.
The regulation landscape on edited crops increasingly favours non-GM classification of gene editing where transgenes are not involved. We will likely look closely at genome editing or epigenetic editing, potentially in neglected crops, including seaweeds, cannabis, turmeric, blackberry, aloe, and coyol, amongst others.
However, we are interested in increasing the potential of targeted chemical mutagenesis. Chemical mutagens have been widely used in crop breeding for decades, causing mutations without using GMO technology. While useful, they are not loci-specific, which has led us to the idea of developing a highly targeted or directable chemical mutagen to leverage the best of RNA-guided nucleases and non-GM mutagenesis techniques.
IMAGINING THE FUTURE
Overcoming these challenges will not only continue to improve crops for better yields and high nutritional value but also enable the production of novel inputs for bio-based polymers, dyes, textiles, and fuels (to name a few). Furthermore, we can enhance the intrinsic environmental benefits plants bring to ecosystems, such as promoting soil health and increased biodiversity. By taking this holistic view of what crops can be, we will be able to increase the value of current farms by diversifying the outputs produced, reducing the socioeconomic gap. Therefore, there is great potential to advance a transition towards a bioeconomy through crops.
Businesses solving these challenges will likely do so in the context of plants (current and potential new crops) grown in specific bioregions. However, the solutions found to overcome these challenges will be easily translatable to other plant systems produced worldwide as the obstacles presented affect innovation in all crops. Therefore, in the short term, these businesses will create the crops that enable the bioeconomy at a local and regional level. In the long-term, these businesses would have made the critical platforms needed that allow other parts of the world to transition towards a bioeconomy. Both should be regarded as successful outcomes of this opportunity area.
We are seeking entrepreneurial scientists to join us and are discussing the opportunity in more detail in a webinar at 3pm GMT on January 27th 2023 - please register using this link, we hope to see you there!