Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Israeli Technology Helps Giants Like Monsanto Feed the World

  • Big data company NRGene analyzes genomes for better breeds
  • NRGene to expand tech to identify human disease biomarkers

Genomic big-data technology developed by Israel’s NRGene is accelerating efforts to eliminate world hunger. 

NRGene is working with Syngenta Ag and Monsanto Co. to detect plant traits that can produce higher-yielding crops, and with gene-sequencer Illumina Inc. to improve cattle herds. It says its cloud-based software speeds up development of crops and breeding by as much as 30 percent. 

Its program, which focuses on big data instead of biology, was devised mostly by algorithm designers and software engineers who served in Israeli military intelligence units and “never saw a DNA database in their life,” Chief Executive Officer Gil Ronen said in a phone interview.

According to the World Food Programme, 795 million people lack access to enough food to lead healthy, active lives. In September 2015, 193 United Nations member states pledged as part of a sustainable development plan to eliminate this problem by 2030, a goal complicated by degradation of soil, freshwater, oceans and forests, and by climate change that makes natural disasters more likely.

Critical Piece

At Kansas State University, NRGene’s technology streamlines mapping of complicated wheat genomes. That drives prediction models that make it easier and cheaper to test for higher-yielding, better quality wheat, said Jesse Poland, assistant professor at the school’s department of plant pathology. 

“NRGene is the critical piece for putting all the data together,” he said.

At Monsanto, which announced a multiyear global licensing agreement with NRGene Thursday, the platform will analyze more than one billion data points to find traits that can lead to more sustainable food production with fewer pesticides and more efficient use of water, said Tom Osborn, molecular breeding technology director for the world’s largest seed company.

“If you look at every crop, there’s a ton of variation. We’re only beginning to understand and leverage genetic diversity,” Osborn said. “It’s absolutely necessary for us to have these tools to meet the needs of growing populations.”

Hungry Globe

Syngenta said in a press release earlier this month it was expanding its use of NRGene’s software to accelerate trait discovery and breeding across diverse crops.

Illumina’s Ryan Rapp, associate director of agrigenomics, said the company’s collaboration with NRGene would analyze the genome sequence a cattle species that tolerates heat and has disease resistance to numerous pests throughout the world.

Seven years ago, the United Nations said global food production must double by 2050 to meet the demands of growing populations, and called for innovative strategies to combat hunger. According to Allied Market Research, the bioinformatics market -- which involves the development of software and storage methods to organize, analyze and retrieve biological information -- will grow about 21 percent a year through 2020, when it’s forecast to reach $12.8 billion.

“Everyone knows that in 2050 every piece of land will have to produce twice as much, so breeding new varieties is a crucial part of that effort,” Ronen said. “If we speed up this process, we prevent hunger in the long term.”

With $18 million backing so far, NRGene is planning a mid-year fundraising round to further expand software analysis into the human genome, so its solution can identify biomarkers for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and improve diagnostics for prevention and early detection. As personalized medicine grows, NRGene’s technology also could help pharmaceutical companies find more suitable subjects for clinical trials.

The company says it’s now negotiating with companies in the field and receiving data from health maintenance organizations, drug companies, genomic research centers and academic institutions in the U.S., Israel, Canada and Australia. 

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to reflect the proper name of a Monsanto executive.)

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