By Doug Macron
Rosetta Green last week announced it had added a second major ag-bio company to its list of collaborators, striking a deal with Bayer CropScience to discover and characterize microRNAs that can potentially be used to improve drought tolerance and yield in cotton.
Bayer will have exclusive access to targets identified through the arrangement. In exchange, Rosetta will receive undisclosed development and commercialization milestones, as well as royalties.
“This agreement is another significant milestone for the company and a vote of confidence in its technology,” Rosetta CEO Amir Avniel said in a statement. “We believe that microRNA genes have great potential in the agriculture industry and in crop improvement.”
According to Marc Bots, molecular biology group leader for Bayer CropScience, the company has had a longstanding interest in miRNAs stemming from its work with other gene-silencing mechanisms such as RNAi. For example, in 2004, Bayer CropScience initiated a research alliance with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization to explore the use of expressed RNAi in “select crop plant varieties.”
Thus far, however, Bayer's work with miRNAs has been limited to internal programs as the firm tries to “keep up with emerging technologies as much as possible,” he told Gene Silencing News this week.
“When microRNAs started to become [better] known, we started some activities,” Bots said. Having made progress with those efforts, Bayer has now turned to Rosetta Green, which “brings an expertise that's good for us to access and complements our internal activities.”
Bots noted that the Rosetta collaboration's focus on drought represents an attempt to address a farming concern that is expected to worsen in the coming years as a result of climate change. He also indicated that Bayer may expand its efforts with miRNAs to other areas within its research and development portfolio, which covers crops used for food, animal feed, fibers, and fuel.
“MicroRNAs are … in principle, broadly applicable,” he said. “So, we have a broad interest in using microRNAs for trait development.” He declined to comment specifically on other miRNA programs underway at the company.
Despite the potential of using the non-coding RNAs to improve crop traits, Bots cautioned that it would likely be many years before an miRNA-enhanced product reaches the market, noting that Bayer's general development timeline for any ag-bio product is between 10 and 15 years.
Also potentially lengthening the development process are regulatory hurdles, which may not be known until a product nears commercialization since miRNA technology is so new.
“It [is] very difficult to predict regulatory issues with any construct,” Bots said, and this includes miRNAs. “For every new type of biology that is being developed, it will be impossible to predict what type of regulatory hurdles there are.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by an official from another Rosetta collaborator, DuPont. In late 2011, the companies struck a deal under which Rosetta is identifying drought-associated miRNAs for testing in target crops by DuPont unit Pioneer Hi-Bred (GSN 12/22/2011).
At the time, Barbara Mazur, vice president of research strategy at DuPont Agricultural Biotechnology, told Gene Silencing News that her company also takes around 10 to 15 years to bring a product to market due to “substantial” regulatory hurdles.
“Nothing in agriculture is rapid,” she said.
Still, Bots sees at least one advantage miRNAs have over other trait-modification technologies that could help smooth its road to commercialization.
“Using microRNAs or other RNA-based technologies ... you do not create a protein, so protein toxicity is unlikely to be a problem here,” he noted.
As for concerns that regulatory agencies might have with miRNA-modified crops, Bots said that Bayer will deal with them as they come up, “communicating with the regulatory authorities and seeing what their requests are.”
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