Dow AgroSciences, the ag-bio subsidiary of Dow Chemical, struck a non-exclusive technology cross-licensing deal with Monsanto this month, picking up access to an RNAi-based approach to controlling a pest that attacks the roots of corn.
While Monsanto has been applying RNAi to a number of different product-development programs in recent years, the deal appears to be a notable step forward for Dow AgroSciences in terms of exploring the gene-silencing technology.
Dow AgroSciences has not publicly announced any in-house product candidates that incorporate RNAi, although a company spokesperson told Gene Silencing News in an email that it has undisclosed, proprietary RNAi technologies under development.
The spokesperson added that the Monsanto arrangement represents an effort to help “our customers stay ahead of the curve.”
Under the terms of the companies’ agreement, Monsanto has picked up a license to Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist weed control system herbicide-tolerant trait for use in field corn, while Dow AgroSciences has been given a license to Monsanto’s Corn Rootworm III product candidate.
One of the biggest threats to corn crops, corn rootworms consume the primary roots of corn, while larvae feed on the plant’s root hairs and small roots. The pests are combated in a number of ways including the use of pesticides and planting practices such as crop rotation, as well as through the use of transgenic corn varieties developed by companies including Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences.
Monsanto has also been exploring the use of RNAi to develop rootworm-resistant corn for some time, with company researchers publishing a paper in 2007 describing the use of dsRNA to inhibit genes vital to the pests (GSN 11/20/2007). Late last year, Monsanto reported on the use of orally delivered dsRNAs targeting the Snf7 ortholog, which encodes a protein essential for intracellular trafficking, to kill rootworms.
On these and other data, Monsanto has advanced Corn Rootworm III into the third phase of development in its pipeline — a stage that includes advanced development activities such as trait integration, field testing, and regulatory data collection, and takes between one and two years to complete.
Based on Monsanto’s estimates, it could take up to three years of phase IV development before the product is ready for commercialization.
Monsanto also has a next-generation version of the technology called Corn Rootworm IV, which is in phase I development and combines protein-based modes of action with an RNAi component.
The Dow AgroSciences spokesperson did not provide specific details on the company’s plan for the Corn Rootworm III technology, but indicated that it would be used in combination with other pest-control approaches.
“Using RNAi, we’re able to target and control rootworms with a novel mode of action that is outside of the Bt class of proteins that have been used in all other insect-control products,” she wrote in her email. “When combined with proprietary Dow AgroSciences Bt genes, this will further strengthen performance and adds [a] mode of action for greater product durability.”
While it has not publicly discussed its work with RNAi, Dow AgroSciences has been building up intellectual property related to the technology’s application in agriculture.
For instance, this year alone, the US Patent and Trademark Office has published three of the company’s patent applications — Nos. 20130097730, 20130091601, and 201330091600 — covering RNAi including three related to coleopteran-resistant plants.
And while Dow AgroSciences doesn’t necessarily have expertise in RNAi manufacturing itself, sister company Dowpharma previously served as a provider of GMP-certified siRNAs for Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (GSN 4/1/2005), giving the ag-bio firm access to oligo synthesis expertise.
But Dow AgroSciences is not alone in its interest in harnessing RNAi for agricultural uses. For instance, Syngenta recently agreed to pay $518 million to acquire DevGen and its portfolio of RNAi technologies for crop enhancement and protection (GSN 9/27/2012).
In fact, interest in agricultural RNAi is so great that the US Department of Agriculture recently began a three-year project to investigate the potential risks the technology poses when used to develop insect-resistant crops (GSN 12/6/2012).