By combining gene editing and artificial intelligence, two young plant scientists are hoping to revolutionise crop development and tackle some of farming’s biggest challenges.
Spending summers on his grandfather’s East Sussex farm sparked William Pelton’s love of plants and determination to make a difference in food production.
“It’s always fascinated me that to grow your own food is such a simple process, but to do it at a scale to feed everyone is quite difficult,” he says.
Fast forward through studying botany and cutting edge genome editing techniques, and Dr Pelton combined his skills with synthetic biologist Dr Nicolas Kral, to found Phytoform Labs.
With support from Imperial College, the pair interviewed more than 100 people – from UK farmers, to Iranian saffron growers, researchers at Syngenta, and others across the whole supply chain – to investigate what issues genome editing could tackle.
Genome editing, developed about six-seven years ago, is different to traditional genetic modification.
Rather than introduce foreign DNA into a plant, Phytoform Labs turns the genes that create desirable and non-desirable traits in a plant, on and off.
“We realised it was a really quick way to develop a new crop,” says Dr Pelton.
“And it’s just doing what nature does anyway – most of evolution happens through genetic mutations.”
Genome editing is looked on more favourably by regulators in most countries than traditional genetic modification, and is a quicker and more targeted way to develop plants.
Phytoform Labs has added artificial intelligence to the process to further cut time and costs.
Their ‘gene editing platform’ (a specialist machine) identifies the key changes in plant DNA that turns genes on and off.
These changes are tested in the lab in single cells, eliminating the need for time- consuming and costly breeding programmes.
Findings are fed back into the platform and the machine uses algorithms to sift through data quicker than a human could, and design new changes.
Rather than take a decade to develop a new crop, Dr Pelton believes Phytoform Labs could eventually do it in 12-18 months.
Projects and benefits
The company is working with a tomato seed breeder in Florida, who has been trying for four years to breed a gene out that causes fruit to drop off.
Dr Pelton says Phytoform Labs will achieve this within a fraction of the time using genome editing, while maintaining desirable traits the breeder has developed, which could otherwise be lost during breeding.
Dr Pelton and Dr Kral are also working with a leafy veg grower, who has suffered big crop losses after unseasonal cold and hot spells triggered early flowering.
“We think we can reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change,” says Dr Pelton, “and also create crops more resistant to conditions like drought, cold, and heat.
“We also want to look at nutrition – since the Green Revolution the focus has been on yields, but genome editing allows us to increase things like vitamins and antioxidants.”
The pair also hope to develop new staple crops, which can be grown in a wide variety of conditions, increasing diversity and resilience in the food system.
Company Facts: Phytoform Labs
- Machine learning used to identify changes in plant DNA that turns genes of desirable or non desirable traits on and off.
- Testing is done in the lab rather in single plant cells rather than whole plants, and findings fed back into the machine, which sifts through the data and designs new changes until the DNA adjustments are identified.
- Genome editing (which changes the plant’s existing DNA, rather than adding foreign DNA) is used to make changes in crops.
- Significantly speeds up process of new plant development
- Two pilot projects with growers – to reduce fruit-drop in tomatoes, and eliminate early flowering in leafy veg.
- Has potential to make crops more resilient to climate change and disease, more nutritional, and reduce waste and impact on environment.
- Two co-founders supported by team of industry-leading advisors. Currently hiring machine-learning experts.