LONDON - The Belgian startup CropDesign NV announced last week it has raised US$5 million in venture capital to commercialize technology for improving crop plants by the modification and manipulation of cell cycle genes that control cell division.

Funding for the company, to be based in Ghent, has come from GIMV, of Belgium, Atlas Venture, of London, and Sofinova, of France. CropDesign said it expects the three to invest a further US$6 million within the next 18 months.

CropDesign will focus on genetic modifications to control cell division, which it says will allow it to design plants of better quality, providing higher yields and greater resistance to diseases and stress conditions. The company has acquired the exclusive worldwide rights from academic partners to a number of patent applications dealing with the genes controlling plant cell division, and hence growth.

CEO Herman Van Mellaert told BioWorld International that CropDesign is a second-generation agricultural biotechnology company.

“The first-generation technology involves introducing foreign genes, for example, to induce resistance to a particular herbicide,“ he said. “In other words, you use genetic modification to achieve a discrete effect. We are now in the era of genomics - where you look at an individual plant's genes, and how they function as a complex.“

Only Plant-To-Plant Genes Introduced

Using the plant's own genes to improve its performance “might involve enhancing or decreasing the expression of certain genes, or altering their specificity, to guide cell division in a rational way,“ Van Mellaert added.

The development might also include introducing genes from a different type of plant, but it would not, as in the case of first-generation genetically engineered plants, involve genes from different types of organisms, such as bacteria.

The intellectual property CropDesign has acquired relates to work carried out on the plant model arabidopsis. “Of course, you can only demonstrate so much in a model,“ Van Mellaert said. “But there are indications and elements in place which lead us to believe that this research can be applied in commercially important plants.“

Van Mellaert said the start-up funding would enable the company to set up labs and increase staff to 30, and demonstrate that the tools developed in arabidopsis are relevant to the design of crop plants.

A decision has been made on which plants to study, but Van Mellaert declined to name them. CropDesign intends to find partners in the agricultural chemistry, seed, feed and food processing industries. “However, we do not intend to be a contract research company, nor do we immediately want to license the technology we have now,“ Van Mellaert said. “The aim is to clearly develop and make visible what this technology can do, and then sign deals to apply it to produce particular traits in particular plants.“ *