RNA: the next big ag trend to watch?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/wildpixel
Image: Getty/wildpixel

Related tags dna rna

As yet untapped RNA-based technology is set to make up the next generation of tools to accelerate plant breeding and protection says new UK-based spin-out TraitSeq.

A great deal of AI is being targeted at robotics and precision ag at farm level. But significantly less is aimed at accelerated delivery of the innovations (genetics, inputs) that farmers need to tackle climate change and deliver sustainable agriculture.

So says new company TraitSeq – the first spin-out from UK-based genomics research centre the Earlham Institute. It is using proprietary cutting-edge AI and transcriptomic expertise (RNA, rather than DNA) to accurately predict complex trait and chemical/biological performance on crop plants in the field and accelerate animal breeding.

It hopes its first-mover status will allow it to successfully transform the agricultural sector by using AI and biomarkers to revolutionise plant and animal breeding, as well as the development of inputs such as agrochemicals, biostimulants, biologicals, and plant nutrients.

TraitSeq was co-founded by CEO Dr Joshua Colmer; Professor Anthony Hall, head of plant genomics at the Earlham Institute; and seasoned agritech business leader John Bloomer – formerly at ICI, Zeneca and Syngenta. They were subsequently joined as co-founders by agri-tech start-up specialist Dr Felicity Knowles, and bioinformaticians Dr Vignesh Dhandapani and Benedict Coombes.

According to Bloomer, plant breeders “have harnessed DNA based tools, for example molecular markers, to accelerate plant breeding. But if the genes do not express in the field, the trait does not appear in the phenotype – genes interact with the environment. RNA-based tools are the next generation, that help predict field performance, taking into account the agro-environment such as soil and weather.”

RNA’s white space opportunity

TraitSeq describes itself as a low-cost, high-throughput, platform technology that uses bespoke machine learning methods to identify biomarkers that are utilised for training predictive models for complex traits in agriculture. TraitSeq’s trait prediction models achieve beyond state-of-the-art levels of accuracy and can incorporate environmental variation – enabling highly accurate trait performance predictions in the field.

TraitSeq hopes to lead the industry in uniquely combining AI and transcriptomic expertise to provide accurate and robust RNA-based biomarkers for complex genetic traits – such as drought tolerance, tolerance to stress, improved taste, and nutrient use, in plants – and novel inputs that interact with plant genetics.

This informs the accelerated development and enhancement of these desirable traits, paving the way for the creation of higher-yielding, climate-resilient crops, and novel agricultural inputs.

These traits and inputs are enormously beneficial to farmers but are notoriously difficult and time-consuming to develop using conventional practices from the early leads seen in the laboratory and glasshouse into products that work in the field.

TraitSeq claims to offer three main benefits to those in the agritech sector who develop new hybrids and varieties and animal breeds with valuable traits, as well as novel inputs such as biostimulants, biologicals, and crop protection products:

1. Acceleration their product development, bringing innovative new products to market faster.

2. Improvement their R&D success rate through more accurate prediction.

3. Reshaping of their product development funnel, allowing a greater diversity of candidates to enter at the start while also enabling rapid and accurate selection of the ones that will work in the field.

The company says the cutting-edge approach can be applied not only in plant breeding and agricultural input development but also in livestock breeding – offering a comprehensive solution to key challenges in agriculture and food production. These advancements are pivotal for the sector, with the potential to benefit global food security, underpin more sustainable agricultural practices, and help tackle climate change.

“What excites me is TraitSeq’s ability to accurately predict field performance of new agritech products while they are still at a very early stage in the glasshouse,” said Bloomer.

“This will accelerate our customers’ product development process and improve their R&D success rate, bringing new products to the market faster and at lower cost.

“And as climate change provides increasing challenges for farmers worldwide, we need to provide them with innovative new tools to help them grow crops sustainably.”

Joshua Colmer, CEO and co-founder, added: “TraitSeq has the potential to be transformational, and not just for crop improvement, but for a range of applications that we’re excited to be exploring.

“We are the first company to offer this approach to customers in the agritech sector: we are first movers in this field.

“I’m confident TraitSeq will hugely benefit the sector –whether that’s guiding breeding programmes, identifying gene editing targets, or accelerating crop input development.”

Professor Anthony Hall added: “There are many complex traits in plants that breeders would love to be able to select for. But, until now, the tools simply haven’t existed to do this reliably.

“TraitSeq’s technology can identify biomarkers for traits that help mitigate or build resilience to climate change, such as water use efficiency, which will accelerate the development of new crops that can cope with the environmental challenges of the future.

“And the early-stage evaluation of gene edits could significantly improve the efficiency and speed of validation, while also reducing cost.”

(L-R) Prof Anthony Hall, Dr Joshua Colmer, John Bloomer, Dr Felicity Knowles, Prof Neil Hall.

TraitSeq has just been awarded, along with biologicals start-up PfBIO, an Innovate UK Launchpad grant that will help it with the next stages of development.

The company has already seen some notable successes; securing funding from Anglia Innovation Partnership and Innovate UK for pilot projects with industry, attracting significant commercial interest at both the 2023 World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London and the 2023 European Seeds Association Congress in Malta, and winning the latest Innovation Hothouse competition hosted by the Norwich Research Park, UEA, and the Royal Society.

Dr Liliya Serazetdinova, head of business development and impact at the Earlham Institute, said: “TraitSeq is a great example of how we’re translating our cutting-edge science into real-world applications which will have an impact on agriculture and other sectors.”

Bloomer concluded: “As someone with over 30 years as a leader in the agritech industry [with ICI, Zeneca, Syngenta and now as an independent], the potential of TraitSeq excites me.

“TraitSeq will help our customers to provide farmers worldwide with the innovative products they need faster and at lower cost. This helps farmers to keep ahead of our rapidly changing climate and produce the food that we need in a more sustainable way. As climate change is happening faster than agricultural plants can evolve, TraitSeq provides the acceleration that plants need: speed is the key.”

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