Genomics guru Craig Venter and his startup Synthetic Genomics might be hitting some hurdles with their algae partnership with oil giant Exxon, but on Monday, the company announced that it will create a joint venture with Mexican investing group Plenus to use genomics to create more sustainable crop production. The new company, called Agradis, will use a Series A round of $20 million to focus on using genomics to develop “superior” crops, as well as creating methods for crop growth and crop protection.
The first crops that the JV will focus on include castor and sweet sorghum, which can be grown on land not commonly used for food crops. The company says that through the use of genomics to boost yields and lower cost, castor seeds and sweet sorghum could be turned into viable feedstocks for biofuels. The crop protection and crop growth tools will also be created by genomics, and the company says these methods could be more sustainable than using pesticides and fertilizers to protect crops (these are also going to raise eyebrows with scientists concerned over genetically modified food).
Synthetic Genomics was founded in 2005 by genetics expert Craig Venter, who is the father of genetic sequencing. In spring 2010, his team successfully created the first entirely synthetic bacterial cell, which was controlled completely by a synthetic genome — that’s the first existence of artificial life, or the first life with parents that are a computer. That innovation could lead to any number of applications, and Venter says he thinks a completely synthetic algae cell could be the key to creating biofuels that can compete with oil.
While synthetic crops, or heavily genetically tweaked crops, will no doubt be controversial, they could also help pave the way for smarter management of resources — food, energy and water — for the 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050. There will already be 7 billion people as of next Monday, Oct. 31.
Venter said at a talk last week at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. that he thinks the world and food producers will start to design food in a totally different fashion. For example, he said that companies like Nestle and General Mills are trying to use what we did with the human genome to design foods targeted for humans that will be much more nutritious and efficient than foods like corn.
Here’s an explanation of Synthetic Genomic’s digital gene platform, by investor Steve Jurvetson at Green:Net 2010: