The fruits of the sugarcane genome

Cooperation between SucEST and CropDesign could lead to the formation of a company

EDUARDO CESARLast November, the Sugarcane Genome Project (SucEST) of FAPESP concluded the sequencing of 50,000 genes of the plant. From there to here, the project researchers have obtained the complete sequencing of further 9,000 genes and the formation of the largest genetics data bank on the sugarcane in the world. Now they are preparing for an enormous and uncommon leap for the country: to carry out applied genomics, that is to say, to transform the data and information generated through sequencing into products or applications of commercial value.

The first step towards this was taken with the announcement , on the 30th of August, at FAPESP headquarters, of a cooperation agreement between SucEST and CropDesign, a small agricultural biotechnology company, created at the University of Ghent, in Belgium. The agreement includes the development of a joint program for a functional analysis of the sugarcane genes, but its scope is much larger. “This agreement reflects our commitment to build a leading company for the development of applied genomic products”, says Herman Van Mellaert, the chief executive of CropDesign. For the biologist Paulo Arruda, of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the coordinator of the Sugarcane Genome Project, the agreement could in fact be the starting point for the installation of an effective biotechnological industry in the country.

SucEST will contribute with its genes. The Brazilian researchers will select one thousand sugarcane genes within the nearly 60,000 sequenced, which they believe are related to the resistance of the plant to sicknesses and stress (cold, drought, soil conditions) and, even more, to the metabolism of the plant, that is, its rate of growth, productivity and amount of sugar produced. CropDesign will come in with the technology named TraitMill, a robotic factory of phenotypes, capable of very quickly evaluating the function of a gene and also on a large scale.

“The TraitMill also has an assembly line for the introduction of genes into plants”, explains professor Arruda, adding that the phenotype factory makes a fast introduction of genes into a plant model for the observation of its functionality. By the agreement, the sugarcane genes will be introduced into rice, also a gramineous plant, and which therefore has genes common to the sugarcane with the same function. Rice was also chosen as it has a short life cycle of four months. “In this manner, very quickly it will be possible to observe the results”, says Arruda. The discoveries could afterwards be used to improve the productivity or the characteristics of the sugarcane itself or of other cereals.

The Belgian company, besides the technology, will provide the Sugarcane Genome Project up to a maximum of 50 rice seeds containing selected clones and already previously tested at the TraitMill. The agreement will last for 30 months, but the expectation is that in eight months the partners will already have the first results and will manage to file patents for at least ten products or functions of the genes. “We are in a scientific race. Very shortly, other genes of other plants will be available for similar analyses. The partnership with CropDesign will guarantee us the advantage of coming out ahead and of arriving at the results that could represent a large impact in the development of plant biotechnology in the country”, says the coordinator of the Sugarcane Genome Project.

The agreement grants to the Brazilian researchers the right to 100% on any income in Brazil due to the licensing of products or information referring to the sugarcane and to 50% of any income abroad. As to the cereals that could benefit from the sugarcane genes, the Brazilians will receive 50% of the royalties in the country and 7.5% when they are negotiated in the rest of the world. This is the Sugarcane Genome bearing commercial fruit.