Fortifying seeds against drought

​A new Israeli technology from Morflora introduces a drought-tolerant gene into market-ready vegetable seeds, without genetically modifying them.

 Fortifying seeds against drought

 

By Rivka Borochov   The US state of Nebraska has lately seen some of the worst drought conditions in history, causing corn crops to fail. Had the farmers been able to vaccinate their seeds against drought at planting time, a disaster may have been averted.   It sounds like an idea fit for a science fiction movie, but 21st century Israeli agricultural research can now put these kinds of tools in the hands of seed producers and farmers.   The Israeli company Morflora has developed a new platform for introducing a drought-tolerant gene from soy into a corn or rice seed, for example. Unlike genetically modified organism (GMO) technology, this technique lasts for one generation only, without interfering or infiltrating the plant’s genome.   Environmentalists and ecologists are concerned that enhancing agricultural output and global food security using GMO technology is dangerous because when foreign genes from one species are put into another, unforeseen consequences on the plants and those who eat them could follow. Morflora bypasses these problems.   Based on technology developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and licensed from its tech transfer company Yissum, the Morflora approach is 100 percent safe. CEO Dotan Peleg boldly states that this research, pioneered by Prof. Ilan Sela and Prof. Haim Rabinowitch, among others, is nothing short of a revolution.   “We are not transforming plants. We are transforming the industry,” he says.   Top tomatoes   Dotan knows that GMO companies are in a pickle –- especially in European countries –– but, faced with a growing need for food from crops, there has been little choice up to now for enhancing food productivity.   “In the GMO approach the genes are delivered into the cells, with the need of an in-vitro process. In our technology the genes go directly to the seeds. In rice and corn seeds that are ready to market, we can enhance them with some genetic traits in a simple seed treatment,” says Dotan.   Since most commercial seeds go through a treatment process anyway, the Morflora approach would just be part of that process.  

Founded in 2008 with private investment, the company of 10 people is located in Sharsheret, Israel, where it has field test sites.
 
Morflora plans to grow in several dimensions. One is providing a large kit of options to gene discovery companies trying to create an application for desired traits such as drought tolerance or resistance to fungi or bacteria, which would also allow them to test the compound more quickly and cheaply.
 
Another goal is to expand into the orchard fruit or forestry industries to “vaccinate” trees against attacks by viruses, bacteria and even the side effects of invasive pest species.
 
Helping gene companies save time
 
The seed treatment that Morflora is now testing with Fortune 500 international seed companies is called TraitUP. The treatment does not in any way affect future generations of seeds, nor does it have any effects on the soil, water or output of the plant, Dotan says.
 
Such a technology could not only alleviate the concerns of the effects of GMO crops on the environment, but it could finally put heritage seeds back into farmers’ hands. Commercial farmers, even in family-run businesses in countries like India, have had to rely on genetically modified seeds to stay competitive in recent years.
 
The Morflora technology can be applied to any kind of seed so that once-forgotten but biologically important and diverse seed cultivars could enter our food chain once again.
 
Dotan reports impressive field test results from TraitUP-treated tomato seeds that express a specific antifungal trait.
 
TraitUP has been short-listed in the international AGROW awards in the Best Novel Agricultural Biotechnology category, and won a Red Herring in the Top 100 Europe award category, an honor bestowed on the most promising tech companies in the European region, with which Israel is affiliated.

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