Cornell-based startup Ascribe Bioscience, which applies the emerging field of metabolomics to the soil microbiome to develop new products for agriculture, has won a $750,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award to field test its unique pathogen-fighting technology.
The team includes Frank Schroeder, professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Daniel Klessig, adjunct professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, along with Ascribe CEO Jay Farmer.
In 2019, Ascribe Bioscience became the first company based on technology developed at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) to receive a NSF SBIR grant, when it got a $225,000 Phase I award. Schroeder and Klessig are both BTI scientists.
The company’s product, Phytalix, is a natural compound that soil-dwelling roundworms use to communicate with one another. Plants can sense these communication compounds to a degree, giving them some time to launch an immune response.
“Basically, pathogens use these molecules to communicate and the plants are eavesdropping,” said Murli Manohar, co-founder and CTO of Ascribe Bioscience, and a research associate at the Boyce Thompson Institute.
By treating crop seeds with Phytalix before they grow into plants, the plants’ immune systems are preemptively primed against certain pathogens, and better equipped to ward off illness when the time comes – similar to humans’ use of vaccines.
Unlike commercial pesticides, Phytalix doesn’t kill microbes, thereby avoiding emergence of evolutionary resistance to the chemicals. And unlike live, microbe-based pesticides, Phytalix doesn’t introduce non-native or genetically engineered microbes to an ecosystem.
Phase II funding will allow Ascribe to test Phytalix’s efficacy on protecting soybeans and wheat in the field. The team will also test its technology’s compatibility with commercial pesticides to see if it works more reliably in conjunction with chemicals.
Casey Verderosa is a writer for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.