Agrisoma eyes North American feedstock opportunity

By Luke Geiver | August 03, 2011

Agrisoma may be the least known 10-year-old renewable energy company, as Steven Fabijanski told Biodiesel Magazine, but that hasn’t stopped a Canadian development fund from granting the Ottawa-based firm with roughly $425,000 in research funding. Agrisoma will use the money in partnership with Rosetta Green, a gene manipulation developer for alternative fuel feedstock based in Israel, to combine Rosetta Green’s tools to identify new genes and traits that might apply to work being done at Agrisoma to enhance carinata, a cousin of the canola plant.

If you haven’t heard of Agisoma before, Fabijanski said that was the plan. The firm spun out of a publicly traded company in 2001 called Chromos Molecular Systems, a pharmaceutical business that used gene manipulation and chromosome engineering technology. “No one takes notice of things in Canada until they get on the front edge of things,” he said. For the company’s first three years, his team worked to transfer the technology from the pharmaceutical to the agricultural sector. Now, the company has developed what they call ETL technology, Engineered Trait Loci technology. “Being under the radar was something we did deliberately because there is a lot of hype around biotechnology and how big it is going to be,” he said. “You always hear stories about how companies are going to set the world on fire, and the next year you say whatever happened to them?”

The ETL technology allows one to engineer chromosomes to either contain new trait or product leads, he explained, and “it allows you to be very specific in your engineering in order to get maximum expression of the traits or the features that you want in an organism.” The technology allows a user to do three things. First, it can engineer an existing chromosome to be a basic platform for new genetic activity. Second, it can create artificial chromosomes which can be used to add new genetic traits to a crop, and third, it allows the user to go back into a newly created chromosome and plug in new applications.

For example, the team took a species of Brasica that had only about 1 to 2 percent of long chain oils. Using the ETL technology, the team brought up the oil content to 50 percent. While most technologies that rely on genetic modification use a random approach that inserts DNA into a chromosome without knowing at times where that DNA will end up, Fabijanski said the ETL approach focuses on a specific region. “There is one specific region in crops, we call it the pericentric heterochromatin region, that is a region that nature has selected as the most robust area for expression of traits.”

The ETL approach targets those specific regions. “For example, in soybeans, I can tell you that when we use the ETL technology, it goes right to the pericentric region of chromosome 13. So we don’t have to worry about the other chromosomes because we know it goes directly into that one spot.” For Fabijanski, “that is the secret behind it,” understanding how to first identify what these regions are and, second, he said, to specifically use the technology to plug in your traits to those regions.

The team at Agrisoma has focused their early efforts on carinata because, as he said, the plant “allows you to do some very significant and sort of wholesale reprogramming to produce some very unique oil.” He said there are three reasons why they chose the crop: it has been researcher and improved genetically for the past 20 years; as a cousin of canola, it has a significant amount of protection chemistry research for insecticides and herbicides; and the plant can provide a good yield on only nine inches of annual rainfall.

“When you go and try and sell a product to the grower,” he explained, “the first thing he wants to know is how to control insects and how to control weeds.”

The partnership with Rosetta Green will last roughly two to three years, he said, but the company has already done several years of field trials with its modified carinata. “We are rolling out products and will be looking at doing another round of financing.” An, he said on the company’s future plans, Agrisoma will “work in a broader swath of the U.S. One of the things you look at is, the opportunity for North American feedstock production is pretty significant given the desire to get the renewable fuels downstream in a big way.” 


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