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Ag-Bio Firms Increasingly Look to RNAi, microRNAs through Partnerships

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Devgen announced last week that it has struck a research partnership with Syngenta focused on using RNAi to develop insect-control approaches for crop protection, marking the latest in a series of deals between RNAi and microRNA specialists and ag-bio players.

Under the arrangement, Syngenta will refine and commercialize sprayable insecticides based on RNAi technologies that had been under development at Devgen.

Devgen has agreed to support Syngenta's development efforts, and received an upfront payment of €22 million ($28 million). It also stands to get yearly research fees of €4.8 million for the duration of the alliance, as well as royalties on sales of products Syngenta develops under the deal.

Additional details were not disclosed, although a Syngenta spokesperson told Gene Silencing News that the first product resulting from the partnership is not expected to reach the market for another five years or so.

“We are pleased to enter this research partnership with Devgen,” Sandro Aruffo, global head of research and development at Syngenta, said in a statement. “This novel technology further expands our growing range of biological insect control solutions.”

But Syngenta is not the only one looking to RNAi to improve its agricultural products, with a variety of ag-bio companies forging similar partnerships lately.

Earlier this month, Marina Biotech disclosed that it had inked a deal giving ag-bio giant Monsanto exclusive access to its delivery and chemistry technologies.

Specific terms of the deal, including which of Marina's technologies were licensed and how they will be applied by Monsanto, were not made public, although a Monsanto spokesperson confirmed to Gene Silencing News that it was “RNAi-related.”

And in January, Monsanto highlighted RNAi in its annual pipeline update, stating that it has advanced into phase III development a strain of corn that incorporates RNAi to create resistance to the corn rootworm, a pest that feeds on the roots of corn plants (GSN 1/12/2012).

According to the company, phase III development involves trait integration, fixed testing, and the generation of data for regulatory purposes. The average duration of phase III is between 12 and 24 months.

At the time, a Monsanto spokesperson also said that the firm has in the final stage of development a strain of soybeans, dubbed Vistive Gold, that can yield a trans-fat-free and reduced-saturated-fat oil.

Notably, Monsanto also recently acquired Beeologics, which is developing Remebee, a double-stranded RNA additive to bee feed that is designed to inhibit Israeli acute paralysis virus, a bee disease highly correlated with colony collapse disorder. The product is currently under large-scale testing in the US.

Along with RNAi, miRNAs have increasingly attracted the attention of companies developing agricultural biotechnologies, including DuPont, which has long had in-house projects focused on the small, non-coding RNAs.

In December, DuPont formed a strategic research alliance with Rosetta Green to identify miRNAs associated with drought tolerance (GSN 12/22/2011).

Rosetta Green agreed to identify drought-related miRNAs for testing in target crops by DuPont unit Pioneer Hi-Bred, which will hold an exclusive license to the miRNAs.

At the time, Barbara Mazur, vice president of research strategy at DuPont Agricultural Biotechnology, said that the arrangement is the company's first commercial partnership in the miRNA field. She also noted that it could take 10 to 15 years before the collaboration yielded a marketable product.

Rosetta Green also attracted the interest of Bayer CropScience, striking in April a partnership to discover and characterize miRNAs that can potentially be used to improve drought tolerance and yield in cotton (GSN 4/12/2012).

As with DuPont, Bayer's alliance with Rosetta Green is the first time the firm has looked beyond its own labs to apply miRNAs to its products, Marc Bots, molecular biology group leader for the company, told Gene Silencing News at the time.

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