When disease decimated Ireland’s potatoes in 1845, farmers were at a loss to explain what caused their staple crop to rot in the fields. The blight continued in successive growing seasons and by 1851, more than one million deaths were attributed to what came to be known as the “Great Famine.”
Fungicides can now prevent infestations of Phytophtora infestans, also called late blight, the pathogen at the root of Ireland’s potato famine. But that fungus-like microorganism and others still threaten plants today, putting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crops at risk each year. Bayer’s efforts to add to its portfolio of 17 fungicides has led it to Trana Discovery, a Cary, NC-based biotech startup working to discover new crop treatments by targeting a cellular process fungi need to reproduce.
Bayer and Trana recently announced a research partnership intended to discover and develop new fungicides. The companies aren’t disclosing any financial terms of the deal, nor are they saying which fungal diseases or crops they are targeting. But Mark Turner, alliance manager for Bayer’s Alliance Management Department, says the Trana technology offers the potential for discovering new fungicides that are more effective, and also have fewer harmful effects on the environment.
Fungicides work by damaging cell membranes, blocking key enzymes or proteins, or interfering with important metabolic processes. Trana’s search for potential fungicides focuses on transfer RNA, or tRNA, a molecule that plays a key role in how cells in all organisms make essential proteins, says Trana CEO Steve Peterson. Trana has developed a way to screen chemicals to find the ones that show promise in blocking tRNA. Preventing fungi from using tRNA to make essential proteins leads the cells to destroy themselves with their own enzymes.
“It basically is a suicide switch for the microorganism,” says Peterson, a pharmaceutical industry veteran who has held various product development and marketing roles at companies including Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK).
Though Bayer CropScience is headquartered in Research Triangle Park, NC, not far from Trana’s offices, the German company’s fungicide research operations are located in Lyon, France. Trana’s initial work will involve running fungi genomes through a database in order to identify tRNA that hold the most potential as targets for a new fungicide, Peterson says. After identifying promising targets, Trana will screen thousands of chemicals to find the ones that naturally inhibit those tRNA molecules.
Trana’s approach is more targeted than the historical way of testing a library of chemistries on crops and seeing what effect they have on both the plant and the fungus, says Paul Ulanch, executive director of the biotechnology commercialization center at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Ulanch knows of no other companies developing new fungicides by targeting tRNA. (The Biotech Center, whose support of North Carolina-based biotech startups includes providing loans and grants, has loaned a total of $310,000 to Trana.)
One reason that crop protection companies are looking for new fungicides is … Next Page »