Being involved in the world of genomics, Gil Ronen works with technologies that open up an entirely new world for plant breeders. That really became evident to him in 2015 when NRGene, a company he founded in Israel a decade ago, got involved in the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC) project and began working with researchers on decoding the wheat genome.
It was a big project. At the time, decoding the wheat genome was a major challenge as it’s a highly complex crop. Work on the bread wheat genome had been in process for more than a decade. Genomics technology was capable of decoding the wheat genome and completed the work in two months, five years ahead of time.
Aside from the Green Revolution, it was perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of wheat breeding, Ronen says. Since then, NRGene has worked on multiple projects involving canola, lentil, mustard, beans and many more.
It’s further evidence that genomics and related technologies is transforming the work of plant breeders in big ways.
And that’s good news for food security, Ronen says.
“We have better seeds, better varieties, better crops, and this is due to better genetic combinations. If you want to know what will be the next best thing in seed, you can now look into the genomes of plants and produce seeds that are yielding more and better resistant to stresses using the data that is revealed within the genome,” Ronen says.
Benjamin (Beni) Kaufman is also at the forefront of the genomics revolution. As operations director for AgriPlex Genomics in Cleveland, Ohio, AgriPlex partners with NRGene to couple NRGene’s software solution for optimized genotyping with AgriPlex’s amplicon-based technology to offer the breeding community a complete end-to-end solution for low-cost genotyping.
AgriPlex’s PlexSeq technology is a proprietary genotyping platform based on the amplicon sequencing method. PlexSeq offers the ability to multiplex 50 to 3,500 Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNPs — the most common DNA marker used for genotyping) in an unlimited number of samples. One of AgriPlex’s latest projects is AgriPlex Connect, which aims to provide a communal platform that combines the genotyping needs of the community for both public and private sectors with the PlexSeq technology.
AgriPlex aims to expand its consortium and participation for various SNP Panels. Current panels are its new 1K Soy Community SNP Panel, RiCA V4 Rice Panel, Fresh Market Tomato, LSU 550 Southern Rice Panel, and Bovine Panel. AgriPlex is currently constructing wheat, maize, and canola panels.
Kaufman actually began his career in zoology before entering the field of genomics.
“My dream was to study animals in their natural habitat, but this took a turn sometime during my bachelor’s degree and I started being more interested in genetics. That brought me to the field of molecular evolution. We’re talking the mid-1980s here. Working at a DNA level at that time was all the rage,” he says.
“That’s what brought me over from basic science and into ag biotech. In the end, it’s all genomics really. There are many similarities between studying molecular evolution and what we practice as molecular breeding.”
SNPer, NRGene’s software tool, optimizes genotyping processes of any crop plant or farm animal. It enables the design of a SNP set, which is customized for every breeding project, allowing for lower genotyping data generation costs by up to 70%.
Genomics is becoming known as the revolutionary field of science that it is, but like all technologies, genomics platforms are impacted by regulatory and innovation hurdles that affect many other technologies, notes Kaufman. Those hurdles are influenced by many forces unique to individual societies that ultimately impact how new technologies can be used.
“Here in the U.S., we are in a much better situation that other places in the world when it comes to regulation of GMOs and gene editing, for example. Nevertheless, restrictions on these technologies around the globe are holding us back,” Kaufman says.
“Technology evolves much faster than the industry is willing or able to adopt it. I’m not talking about the large ag biotech companies, which are at the forefront of genomic development, but rather the second- and the third-tier companies, and public research organizations, which are in general slower to adopt new technologies.”
Ronen points out that genomics tools like those offered by NRGene can actually reassure the world about the safety of new breeding techniques.
“If you want to use genomics tools for gene editing, for example, then you need to show that gene editing technology is safe. By going into the genome, we can show that whatever changes are being made are perfectly safe for humans. Genomics technologies really give you the transparency people are looking for,” Ronen says.
Ronen and Kaufman joined host Marc Zienkiewicz on this week’s episode of Seed Speaks to talk about these issues and more. Watch the episode above.
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