Benson Hill Biosystems, an agricultural technology company, is partnering with the University of Guelph on the project with the overall goal of improving yield for the oilseed canola, which is often processed and used in animal feed, said the biotech company.
The project received grant funding from Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP) in addition to funding from the Ontario Ministry of Research.
The $2m grant covers the majority of the $3.4m, three-year project said Matthew Crisp CEO and co-founder of Benson Hill.
“When you submit [for a grant] you have to have the remainder of the funding commitments already lined up,” he told FeedNavigator. “When the government dollars came through we were able to commence work on the project.”
The projects initial steps are underway and are expected to be further along by the end of the month, he said. “It’s a three-and-a-half year program that started last month, and we’ll get through all the early stages of proof of concept,” he added.
Milestones for the work include completing molecular analysis of plant strains and assessing plant transformations to make sure commercially viable plant varieties are being generated, he said.
“Canola is a crop that has a harvest index that is significantly less than corn and soy,” said Crisp. The harvest index examines the relationship between the amount of biomass produced and how much is harvested for use, he added.
In corn, more than 50% of the biomass is the grain harvested for use, he said. “In canola, it’s 30-35% – so there’s quite a bit of upside and there’s a lot of genetic potential,” he added.
The company’s work typically focuses on ways to improve photosynthesis in crop plants, and that will be part of the focus for the work with canola, he said. Additional traits of interest have been identified by researchers with the Univeristy of Guelph.
Photosynthesis is a complicated trait in plants sometimes not completely understood, he said. But it’s also the primary metabolism and responsible for aspects of the plant like the carbohydrates, oil, protein and tissue.
“It’s the backbone and by working with it directly we can create more from less,” he said. “It’s widely realized as the holy grail trait, it’s responsible for all feed, fuel, fiber and food – it’s very complex, you need a computational platform to guide us through ways to improve it.”
An advanced computational platform is needed to develop a predictive analysis for the work, he said. “By combining machine intelligence with human intelligence we’re able to uncover strategies to improve it,” he added.
The process can shorten the time needed to develop a crop that is ready for commercialization, he said. “To develop something like this in agriculture takes a minimum of 5 to 10 years, because we’ve validated a lot of the trait candidates we’re only 4 to 6 years from commercialization,” he added.
“We very much believe in the portfolio approach – if we put 10 [traits] in and 80% don’t work, but if I have two [that do] that’s still an incredible opportunity,” he said. “A 10-20% yield increase is an opportunity by itself – and worth more than $1bn at the grower level, and that’s only in Canada.”
Innovation process and cloud biology
Benson Hill has not worked on improving canola before this, said Crisp. However, it has completed similar projects with other feed crops, like corn, and with plants similar to canola.
The company’s process involves using “cloud biology” to analyze the large data sets generated, he said. “The cloud provides us a scalability that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve,” he added.
That analytical analysis is combined with biological work on the plants, and while the process has been established in some other aspects of the life sciences, the approach is newer for use in agriculture, said Crisp.
“From a process standpoint, it’s just that we can go from an early stage of research to a validation stage far more quickly and for less cost using predictive analytics,” he added. “We evaluate a portfolio of trait candidates for a gene, or series of genes, and that allows us to realize more crop yield.”
The grant for the canola project was part of a $6m total offered in federal funding to support genomics work, said Genome Canada. The canola project was among five selected for funding because it is expected to generate direct benefit for growers, processors and others in the value chain, which includes feed and animal producers.
“As the science of genomics matures, its applications are becoming ever more wide-ranging,” said Marc LePage, president and CEO of Genome Canada, at the time of the grant’s announcement. “These new projects demonstrate just how cross-cutting genomics can be and how powerful it is as a tool to drive innovations in health, agriculture and agri-food among other areas of importance to the Canadian economy.”
The genomics project combines the analytical technology established by Benson Hill and work being done by researchers with the company and the University of Guelph, said Crisp.