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Bioengineering stronger crops that can survive extreme weather

Alison Snyder

WASHINGTON DC: A leading synthetic biology company is using bioengineering to try to create more resilient crops.

Why it matters: Extreme weather and a 7.8 billion-and-growing global population are ratcheting up pr-essure on an already fragile food system — and the en-vironments that support it.

The big picture: Researchers are using synthetic biology to tackle a range of problems in agriculture — from reducing synthetic fertilizer use to improving the nutritional value of crop plants.

An estimated 20–40% of crops are lost to pests around the world each year, costing the global economy about $290 billion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

More than 550 insect species are resistant to pesticides, and it costs an estimated $300 million “to bring an insecticide from molecule to market, and about eight to 10 years,” Bruce Steward of insecticide and chemical company FMC recently told Hoosier Ag Today.

What’s next: Gingko Bioworks and Corteva Agriscience announced a two-year research agreement to use the tools of synthetic biology to try to speed the discovery — and lower the cost — of natural compounds for more sustainable, effective and specific insecticides, pesticides and fungicides.

Gingko will use its cell engineering platform and library of DNA sequences to identify, improve and produce different enzymes and natural compounds that Corteva will then test in greenhouse trials.

“Nature has solutions for farmers to address food loss and crop protection, and it is a matter of harvesting those,” says Jennifer Wipf, senior vice president of commercial cell engineering at Gingko.

Gingko hopes to speed the process, but regulatory challenges will be part of the development, says Kevin Madden, senior vice president of platform commercialization at the company.