‘The yield gains are insane’. David Friedberg unwraps Ohalo’s much-awaited ‘Boosted Breeding’ tech

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Richard Drury
Image: Getty/Richard Drury

Related tags Ohalo David Friedberg gene editing gmo plant breeding genetics

The entrepreneur and investor’s plant-breeding platform Ohalo Genetics is out of stealth mode and out to boost crop yields worldwide.

“The yield gains are insane," Freidberg revealed in his popular tech-focussed All-In podcast. Ohalo has developed a groundbreaking technology called ‘Boosted Breeding’. This uses CRISPR gene editing to alter the reproductive circuits in parent plants to accelerate crop improvement and enhance food production sustainably.

The result of nearly five years of research by Ohalo and spend of over $50 million into the underlying mechanisms of plant reproductive biology, the discovery alters the reproductive circuits in parent plants.

It works with Ohalo's proprietary proteins and process disenabling each parent plant to pass its entire genome to its offspring, rather than a random half of the genes of each parent, Friedberg explained.  

According to the US company, the innovation brings an unprecedented level of precision and speed to plant breeding that can deliver vastly improved varieties faster than ever before.

The data is "ridiculous", Friedberg said, citing early trials that have seen yield gains of 50 to over 100%. The company is already implementing Boosted Breeding across a host of crops, from potatoes, to corn, to berries, and beyond.

What is Boosted Breeding? 

Ohalo's Boosted Breeding system enables each parent plant to pass its entire genome to its offspring, rather than a random half of the genes of each parent. These new offspring plants then possess an expanded genome containing all of the genes from each parent.

The results so far have been particularly impressive with potatoes, Friedberg revealed. In one trial, the parent had nine grammes and 33 per potato. But the boosted offspring boasted 680 grammes of potato.  

Potato is the third largest source of calories on earth. Friedberg therefore believes the tech has enormous promise to advance food security in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and India.

“In India they eat potatoes two meals a day. In Africa potato is a food staple.” Meanwhile, “around the world we've had a tough time breeding potatoes and improving the yield. With our system we've seen incredible yield gains in potato almost overnight.”

The tech also means new seed varieties will now commercially available

As well as boosting yields, the tech allows crops that are currently vegetatively propagated, like potatoes, to be grown from seed.

The company says that by combining beneficial traits and increasing yield through improved genetic diversity, Boosted Breeding enables new agronomic systems for vegetatively propagated crops that are currently costly, inefficient, and vulnerable to significant disease.

This will make new seed varieties commercially available for farmers, as well as allow crops to be grown in places currently not suitable for traditional farming due to factors like soil degradation, harsh climates and lack of water.

What benefits does it hope to unlock?

Combining Beneficial Traits – Because parent plants pass on a random selection of half of their genes to their offspring in traditional plant breeding, combining beneficial traits (like disease resistance or drought tolerance) is difficult and time-consuming, sometimes taking decades or longer to accomplish, and often requiring trade-offs in plant health and growth. Boosted plants immediately inherit all the beneficial traits of both parents, allowing for an unprecedented improvement in Boosted crops.

Vastly Increased Health and Growth – With a larger genome, Boosted plants benefit from radically improved genetic diversity and the novel gene networks that arise as a result, leading to plants that are healthier and grow bigger and faster, with overall yield gains of 50-100%+ in early trials.

Genetically Uniform Seeds – For many crops that are vegetatively propagated, like potatoes, instead of grown from seed, Boosted Breeding unlocks scalable seed-based planting systems for the first time. These seeds carry lower disease risk and require a fraction of the cost and time associated with vegetative propagation, the company says.

"Boosted plants produce genetically uniform true seeds that unlock the ability to create entirely new seed industries in crops that farmers don't plant from true seed today, like potatoes," said Friedberg.

"Over the next few years, we're going to radically transform the way crops are grown, making new seed varieties commercially available for farmers with vastly improved agronomic systems, ultimately delivering improvements in yield, resilience and adaptability, and nutrition."

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"We're going to be applying boosted technolgy across nearly every major crop worldwide. It will both increase yield but it will also have a massive impact on the ability to deliver seed to help farmers, lower food prices and improve sustainability." David Friedberg

How will the company make its money?

Friedberg said the company is already generating revenue. He said the business will look to scale by both supplying products and by selling seeds direct to farmers. Commercial trials are to follow. In terms of regulation, Ohalo's genetically modified potato has been reviewed and approved by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for commercial cultivation in the US.

APHIS found that Ohalo's modified potato, which alters the sugar profile to reduce glucose and fructose content, is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to cultivated potato varieties. As a result, APHIS determined that this potato is not subject to regulation under 7 CFR part 340 and may be safely grown and bred in the US.

"We founded Ohalo on the premise that we could significantly accelerate and improve existing breeding systems and crop outcomes by changing a plant's reproductive system," added Ohalo CTO, Jud Ward, in a company statement.

"After years of scientific discovery and many iterations, we have proven this technology will eliminate many of the challenges agriculture faces and believe this will unleash previously unimaginable benefits for farmers and consumers."

"The demands on agriculture have never been greater, with estimates that global food production must increase by at least 50% over the next 25 years, according to the UN," added Friedberg.

"At the same time, crop growing regions are shifting, and food production is becoming increasingly more volatile due to changing weather patterns.

"Boosted Breeding will accelerate agriculture adaptation and increase productivity, helping crops survive and thrive in new environments while reducing the cost and footprint of agriculture."

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