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NSF Funding Natural Agri-Chemical Technology

Nematode and egg

Scanning electron microscope image of a soybean cyst nematode and egg (Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

25 Mar. 2019. A start-up company spun-off from Cornell University is receiving a small business grant to develop in crop plants a natural protection against pathogens. Ascribe Bioscience Inc. in Ithaca, New York is receiving a $225,000 award from National Science Foundation for a 1-year study to demonstrate the feasibility of its technology that invokes plants’ immune systems to ward off pests, fungi, and bacteria.

Ascribe Bioscience is a 2 year-old enterprise founded by researchers at Cornell’s Boyce Thompson Institute, or BTI, to commercialize a technology developed by the company’s scientific founders: Frank Schroeder, Daniel Klessig, and Murli Manohar. The BTI researchers study the metabolism of microbes in soil, and discovered metabolites of pathogens in soil that can trigger protective responses by plants.

The team’s research published in 2015 specifically pointed to compounds called ascarosides that act as signaling molecules emitted by nematodes, a roundworm parasite and plant pest. Their study also highlighted the low-level chemical responses by several plant species — the model plant Arabidopsis, as well as crop plants tomato, potato, and barley — that give the plants resistance or immunity against ascarosides. In addition, the researchers found similar protective responses generated by plants against other pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, molds, and viruses, and validated this phenomenon in other crop plants such as rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans.

The researchers say its technology does not seem to encourage microbes to develop resistant strains. “When you directly suppress a pest or pathogen,” says Manohar in a BTI statement, “it creates selection pressure that causes resistant strains to emerge and flourish. Because ascarosides do not kill the pest or pathogen, we do not believe that development of resistance to these compounds will be an issue.” Manohar is Ascribe Bio’s chief technology officer as well as a research associate at BTI.

The Small Business Innovation Research grant from NSF funds development of a prototype seed treatment that shows the technical and commercial feasibility of Ascribe Bio’s technology. The company is expected to demonstrate a formulation with long-term stability and efficacy, without causing adverse side effects impairing the seed’s germination or on microbes and insects in the soil. The product prototype is also expected to be viable across a wide range of plant crops, as evidenced in greenhouse and field trials. Manohar is the lead investigator on the project.

The scientists recruited local entrepreneur and chemist Jay Farmer as Ascribe Bio’s CEO. “There is great interest in leveraging the soil microbiome as a sustainable approach to improving crop health,” notes Farmer. “Ascribe Bio’s approach of developing products based on the small molecules that mediate plant–microbiome interactions will provide farmers with solutions that are reliable, easy to use, and avoid the risks and complications associated with live microbe-based products.”

The award by NSF is made from America’s Seed Fund, which contains the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. “Seed” in this case refers to seed financing, a company’s early-stage fund raising, not the seeds grown in plants. America’s Seed Fund provides early-stage grants like Ascribe Bio’s of $225,000, and if successful, companies are eligible for subsequent R&D financing of up to $1.25 million.

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