Is it precisely in the arid soil of the Judean Desert that the key to saving global agriculture from the devastating effects of the climate crisis? An Israeli company called Planetarc Bio has succeeded in extracting drought-resistant genes from microorganisms living in the desert – and is transplanting them into corn seeds, soybeans, cotton and more. The improvement in yield? Dramatic.
Despite the extreme dry and hot conditions, in the arid soil of the Judean Desert there are microorganisms that manage to live and thrive. This resilience in such a challenging environment has evolved over millions of years of evolution and is engraved in the genetic code of these microscopic creatures.
Dozens killed in flooding in India in October. Consequences of the climate crisis // Photo: Reuters
Israeli ag-tech company Planetarc Bio has developed a method that makes it possible to extract the genes responsible for these traits from these organisms and implant them in the DNA of field crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, thereby dramatically improving both crop yields and their resilience to climate change.
The climate crisis, which leads to multiple droughts, heat waves, desertification and drought in many parts of the world, is a real threat that now hovers over almost every farmer. In fact, it is already making its mark in field yields: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global agricultural yields are expected to decline between 2 and 6 percent every decade from now on.
Meaning? Millions of dunams of agricultural land that will become rocky land every year. Rising temperatures are devastating to many of the crops we feed on. For example, at 36 degrees Celsius or higher, soybean seeds are destroyed and corn pollen is no longer fertile.
The company's incubators. A revolutionary solution to treat plants' resistance to changing climatic conditions, photo: Plantarc Bio
PlanetarcBio was founded in 2014 by Dr. Dror Shalitin, who also serves as CEO. Shalitin holds three degrees from the Hebrew University and a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, during which he specialized in various aspects of plant physiology.
In 2021, he led the company to an IPO on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and today it is in the early stages of commercializing its technology, after signing several initial contracts last year for the sale of genes to seed companies.
In a conversation with Israel Hayom, Shalitin says that the need for gene engineering in the agricultural industry has only become clearer in the past decade since the company was founded. "The climate crisis has escalated in recent years and has become a very tangible problem for farmers. More and more countries are suffering from drought and we are one of the only companies in the world capable of providing an effective response to this acute problem."
, a result of the technology in corn cobs., Photo: Rallis
Evolution in short processes
One way to cope with the rapid changes in environmental conditions is through genetic engineering. The goal of genetic engineering is to import a desirable trait from one species, such as resistance to drought or salinity, and assimilate it into another species. The difficulty is to identify which gene is responsible for the desired trait.
The existing methods are based on computational biology tools, through which scientists try to identify genes that may bring about the desired change in plant function. The problem with this method is that only known genes from species that have already been sequenced can be studied. This is an expensive and lengthy process, involving multiple trial and error over several years, and with uncertain chances of success.
Planetarc's technology brings genetic engineering back to the "field." It makes it possible to extract the genes directly from sources in nature where those genes are proven to be effective. In order to find, for example, genes that contribute to drought and salinity resistance, the company collected soil samples from the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea environment, and extracted the genomes of fungal species and microorganisms that manage to survive in these challenging environmental conditions.
Dr. Dror Shalitin, founder and CEO of the company, in incubators. "An effective response to an acute problem", Photo: Plantarc Bio
Each such microorganism has many thousands of genes. To find out which genes are responsible for the desired traits, planetarc transplants only one gene into each experimental plant in the laboratory, and so in millions of plants simultaneously. In this way, a controlled experiment is obtained that makes it possible to examine, in practice, which plant showed a significant improvement in function - and to find out which gene caused the change.
Shalitin says, "We are actually returning to nature and extracting the genes from organisms that have proven their ability to withstand the harsh conditions. We can test millions of genes this way. The important qualities we are looking for are related to drought resilience and increased yields."
Animals are also becoming extinct due to the climate crisis, Photo: AP
"Contributing to all humanity"
The technology demonstrated its impressive potential in an experiment conducted last year in cooperation with the Indian seed company Rallis, which belongs to the giant Tata corporation. The experiment examined the effect of Plantarc's genes on corn seeds, the world's most common agricultural crop. The results were dramatic: the corn seeds containing the new genes showed an improvement in yield, under dry conditions, of between 60 and 250 percent.
"For seed companies and farmers, the economic value of such genes is enormous. Corn is a market of tens of billions of dollars. We bring solutions to global problems. This is a contribution to all of humanity," Shalitin concludes.
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