By leveraging three technologies that identify genes that could be manipulated to produce superior crops, La Jolla firm Akkadix aims to become the Jolly Green Giant of agricultural genomics.
For instance, one of four products in the Akkadix pipeline is a gene target called Leafy Gene that, when up-regulated, causes more frequent flowering. Leafy Gene could enable farmers to harvest crops such as rice several times a year. The company is also testing a target known as DET2 that, when up-regulated, is essentially an anabolic steroid for plants — it causes faster and more massive growth and increased fertility. Another target Akkadix has identified, BRI1, is the receptor for DET2 and therefore, when stimulated, has the same effects.
Akkadix, which was formed last year by the merger of Xyris and Global Agro, attributes its discoveries to its Menagerie bioinformatics software and ProteomeBank database. It used the tools recently to discover novel protein functions in Vibrio cholerae, a cholera pathogen, and Xylella fastidiosa, a pathogen responsible for citrus variegated chlorosis.
The tools work like this: Menagerie generates data that point Akkadix scientists to putative targets. Then, with a third technology licensed from PanGene, Akkadix scientists create a knock-in. They characterize the phenotype for the up-regulated gene and either verify or discard it.
Animesh Ray, Akkadix program leader, says another method is to create random mutations that cause up-regulation of genes, allowing the company to identify potentially valuable phenotypes and work back to genetic origins.
Yet another method is based on knowledge of regulatory sequences for cell signal pathways. Akkadix has identified several hundred regulatory sequences and begun using proprietary techniques to make genetically modified Arabidopsis plants wherein one of these regulatory sequences is constantly on.
According to Ray, with academic collaborators in the Philippines, Edinburgh, and Norwich, UK, Akkadix will validate anywhere from 6 to 15 new target genes per year and likely sell licenses to other agbiotech firms for commercial development.
At an average fee of $250,000 per license and no royalty fees, the question will be whether the business plan will leave the 77-employee company looking more like Jack on the Beanstalk than Jolly Green.
— Christopher Maggos