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Indian Startup Metahelix Aims to Leapfrog into Transgenic Plant Arena via Bioinformatics

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Four months*after working as a consultant with Monsanto, tackling protein design on a Silicon Graphics “supercomputer” parked in his study, Indian biologist Gautham Nadig began to wonder why he shouldn’t generate intellectual property for himself — and tailor it to India’s special needs.

He teamed up with four other scientists — two in India and two in St. Louis, Mo. — who shared both ideas, and launched Metahelix Life Sciences, India’s newest startup. The company plans to combine bioinformatics and experimental biology to develop novel transgenic plants.

With $1.5 million in seed funding from an angel investor, Metahelix formally began operations in July in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. Its plan for the next 18 months is to expand to 50 scientists, devoting 60 percent of its efforts into contract research services, and the rest into discovery research.

Among its priority projects is one that will aim to broaden the target range of crop insects killed by Bt proteins.

Conventional Bt technology relies on proteins from different Bt strains with specific insect targets. Metahelix plans to alter the Bt protein so that a single modified protein will be able to kill a broad range of insect pests.

“Computational biology will help us determine which specific amino acids we can alter in the protein so that the modified protein retains its kill capability but is effective against multiple insects,” said Kottaram Narayanan, a founder and managing director of Metahelix.

The standard way to target multiple insects has been through “gene stacking,” in which multiple genes are inserted into the plant. “A single synthetic gene that expresses the modified Bt protein will be a more efficient route,” said Narayanan.

Metahelix’s two US-based founders, Ganesh Kishore, former head of Monsanto’s nutrition and consumer products division, and Himadri Pakrasi, biology professor at Washington University, St. Louis, said the research focus at Metahelix will be on problems unique to India.

“India has some major problems that can be addressed through transgenic plants,” said Kishore, citing examples of widespread vitamin A deficiency, anemia, and protein energy malnutrition.

Metahelix will also use bioinformatics tools to narrow down the search for potentially useful genes from thousands of genes to just 200 or 300 genes that will be shortlisted for functional testing through wet lab research.

Besides rice, India’s most popular cereal, Metahelix also plans to work toward building novel nutritional and insect resistance traits in cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, and mustard.

The physicist among the founders, Suri Venkatachalam, has also morphed into a computational biologist and is trying to develop mathematical techniques to simulate biochemical pathways inside a typical cell. “The goal, at the moment, is to develop a proprietary simulator that simulates cellular pathways,” said Nadig.

— GM

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