Simplot to enhance photosynthesis in spuds
By John O’Connell
BOISE, Idaho — J.R. Simplot Co. has partnered with an upstart research business to genetically engineer potatoes with improved photosynthesis efficiency, thereby giving growers a yield advantage without the need for added inputs.
Simplot’s first foray into biotech potatoes — the Innate line engineered to avoid browning after cutting, resist black-spot bruising, have low sugars and low levels of cancer-linked acrylamide — should have USDA approval in time for commercialization during the 2015 crop year, said company spokesman Doug Cole.
Simplot recently launched a pilot program with Benson Hill Biosystems, which has locations in St. Louis, and North Carolina, to introduce the research company’s photosynthesis technology into Simplot potatoes. Cole said it would take several years of development and regulatory approval for Simplot to add photosynthesis efficiency to its list of Innate traits.
“It’s very much in the exploration phase,” Cole said.
Benson Hill President and CEO Matthew Crisp said the project aims to increase spud yields by double-digit percentages. His company, which is solely dedicated to improving crop yields through enhanced photosynthesis efficiency, was founded in 2012 and employs 11 workers. Benson Hill is also applying the technology to sugar cane, rice, soybeans, wheat and corn.
“I absolutely think this kind of technology needs to be embraced and developed and commercialized in order for us to meet worldwide food demands,” Crisp said. “It’s our intent to play a major role in that.”
Crisp said his company is researching a variety of different methods to introduce foreign genes.
“Photosynthesis is an incredibly complex series of photochemical and biochemical reactions. It’s those reactions we’re enhancing the efficiency of in the system,” Crisp said.
Asaph Cousins, an associate professor of plant biology at Washington State University, serves as a consultant to Benson Hill and is aiding the company with research in his laboratory investigating photosynthesis at varying carbon dioxide levels.
He’s also researching how plant leaves utilize available carbon dioxide and deliver it to “photosynthetic machinery,” as well as means of helping light-deprived plants utilize different portions of the solar spectrum.
Cousins believes research into photosynthesis efficiency is “getting more and more legs,” noting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has prioritized such research and USDA has called for incorporating enhanced photosynthetic efficiency and other new technology into breeding programs.
About a year ago, University of Illinois, in partnership with University of California-Berkeley and institutions in Australia and Great Britain, obtained a $25 million Gates Foundation grant targeting improved photosynthesis efficiency in rice, cassava and soybeans. U of I also has a U.S. Department of Energy grant to improve photosynthesis efficiency in sugar cane and sorghum.
U of I biology professor Don Ort said carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as increased from 240 parts per million before the industrial revolution to 400 parts per million today, and chemical processes of converting carbon dioxide into sugar haven’t evolved to keep pace. His laboratory’s approach to increasing efficiency is by increasing the production of enzymes in plants that convert carbon dioxide to remove the bottleneck.
He sees improved photosynthesis efficiency as a key way to boost yields for a growing population.