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Monsanto, Alnylam Form $29.2M Alliance to Apply RNAi to Agriculture

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Monsanto last week took a big step forward with its ongoing efforts to incorporate gene silencing into its agriculture offerings, paying $29.2 million to secure the exclusive, worldwide rights to Alnylam Pharmaceuticals' RNAi technology and intellectual property for agricultural applications.

The deal also gives Monsanto the right to sublicense the technology and IP, and includes undisclosed milestones, research funding, and royalties on product sales to Alnylam. The companies said they have also agreed to be strategic partners in agriculture for a 10-year period, making Monsanto Alnylam's exclusive agriculture partner for that period.

Additional terms of the arrangement were not disclosed.

In a statement, Alnylam's vice president of research and RNAi lead development Rachel Meyers noted that the arrangement gives the company a means to create “additional value” from its RNAi assets in areas outside of its core human therapeutics focus.

For Monsanto, the deal represents a major investment in its recently unveiled BioDirect biologicals, which a company spokesperson said are expected to “complement or replace agricultural chemical products.”

“Agricultural biologicals are typically topical or seed treatment products that are manufactured from, or contain, natural materials,” the spokesperson added in an e-mail to Gene Silencing News. RNAi, in particular, is expected to result in new products “that could have a broad range of applications in agriculture, including the control of agricultural pests and diseases.”

Monsanto officially announced the BioDirect initiative in May, noting that it brings the company's “expertise in plant genomics to chemistry for the first time, enabling products that could provide new options for sustainable pest or virus control.”

"By working with a plant's own naturally-occurring processes, we have the potential to create products that are very precise and specific in how they work and may require smaller and fewer applications than current agricultural products,” Monsanto CTO Robb Fraley said in a statement at the time.

Despite the formal introduction of the BioDirect effort earlier this year, Monsanto has been working with RNAi for some time.

As reported by Gene Silencing News, in January the company said that it has advanced into late-stage 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.

A company spokesperson also said that Monsanto was in the final stages of developing Vistive Gold, a strain of soybeans designed to yield a trans-fat-free and reduced-saturated-fat oil. The spokesperson noted that this product could be on the market within three years.

Last year, Monsanto also acquired privately held bee health firm Beeologics, which is developing an RNAi-based treatment for the colony collapse-related infection Israeli acute paralysis virus, or IAPV. The agent comprises dsRNAs that are added to bee food, and has been tested in field trials in the US and Israel.

According to Beeologics, a large-scale clinical trial in the US is underway.

The company is also developing a next-generation version of the treatment called RemebeePro, which is designed to not only combat IAPV, but also Kashmir bee virus, black queen cell virus, and deformed wing virus. This product is currently in small-scale laboratory efficacy studies, according to Beeologics.

Notably, Monsanto also struck a deal in May to acquire exclusive access to Marina Biotech's RNAi-related delivery and chemistry technologies. Specific terms of that agreement were not made public.

Agricultural Interest

Though Monsanto's deal with Alnylam is one of the most valuable tie-ups between agricultural and RNAi firms, it is not the only one.

In May, Devgen announced that it had begun working with Syngenta to use RNAi to develop insect-control approaches for crop protection (GSN 5/24/2012).

Specifically, Syngenta is refining and commercializing sprayable insecticides based on RNAi technologies that had been under development at Devgen. In exchange, Devgen paid €22 million ($28 million) upfront and agreed to make yearly research investments of €4.8 million plus royalties.

Meanwhile, microRNAs have become hot targets for ag-bio firms including DuPont, which is working with Rosetta Green to identify miRNAs associated with drought tolerance (GSN 12/22/2011), and Bayer CropScience, which is collaborating with Rosetta Green to discover and characterize miRNAs linked to drought tolerance and yield in cotton (GSN 4/12/2012).

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