Phytoform, a London- and Boston-based startup, has received a €5M ($5.7M) investment to develop gene-edited crops with the help of artificial intelligence tools. The firm expects to bring its first product, a weather-resistant tomato, to market in early 2022.
The seed financing will fuel the development of Phytoform’s precision crop breeding platform, which specializes in using artificial intelligence to guide CRISPR gene editing.
According to the FAO, up to 14% of worldwide crop production is lost to food waste, with that number expected to increase due to climate change. Phytoform’s answer to this issue is the development of more resilient crop breeds.
Producing a new crop via traditional breeding techniques is costly and can take years to achieve. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 can greatly speed up the process, but it’s often challenging to know where and how to edit the plant genome in order to get the desired result. With the help of AI, Phytoform’s technology can develop new gene-edited crop strains within months.
“[Phytoform’s] platform is based on AI-driven understanding of plant gene expression. It can annotate, predict, and evolve non-coding DNA to control expression of genes in novel ways,” said Phytoform’s co-founder and CTO, Nicolas Kral. The goal, according to Kral, is to make the minimum amount of changes to a plant’s genome while still achieving the desired characteristics.
Phytoform is also using a form of CRISPR technology called ‘DNA-free’ or ‘footprint-free’ gene editing. This technique makes changes in a genetic sequence without leaving behind evidence of a change being made. It also reduces the likelihood of unwanted mutations elsewhere in the genome.
“We have made our process as minimally disruptive as possible,” said William Pelton, co-founder and CEO of Phytoform. “Our AI technology accurately suggests where to edit, and we use a DNA-free CRISPR genome editing process to make the minor changes needed.”
Phytoform engineers its tomato by deleting an undisclosed DNA sequence in the tomato genome. The crop is designed to be more secure on the vine so that rough weather doesn’t damage it as easily. The fruit also detaches cleanly from the vine when picked and leaves no stem behind, which can damage the tomato in transport.
“The trait will heavily reduce crop losses from harvest to retailers, ensuring the resources necessary to grow the tomato crop are not wasted,” said Pelton.
Phytoform’s seed round was led by Eniac Ventures, a New York-based seed stage fund. In the past, Eniac has funded health, wellness, and food-related startups like Iron Ox and Biobeats.
For now, Phytoform is planning to sell its gene-edited tomato in North America and Australia and avoid the EU market. The EU subjects gene-edited organisms to the same strict regulations as traditional genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which have foreign genes introduced into their genomes and couldn’t be made using conventional breeding. Gene-edited organisms, in contrast, have smaller mutations that could arise via natural processes, and Phytoform doesn’t view its products as GMOs.
Earlier this year, Sanatech Seed, a Japan-based company, started selling the first gene-edited tomato, the Sicilian Rouge. The tomato is engineered to have a higher content of the amino acid gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is claimed to aid in relaxation and in lowering blood pressure.
Neither the Sicilian Rouge nor Phytoform’s tomato are the first genetically engineered tomatoes sold in stores. The Flavr Savr tomato, a traditional GMO designed to stay fresher in shipping and on store shelves longer than conventional tomatoes, was commercialized by the California-based company Calgene (now a part of Monsanto) in 1994. While the idea was similar to Phytoform’s — that genetic engineering could aid in reducing food waste — the Flavr Savr tomato was only available for several years before being pulled from shelves because of high production costs.
Cover image via Elena Resko