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By Casey Verderosa
  • Boyce Thompson Institute
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section
  • Agriculture
  • Plants
  • Pathology
  • Soil

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.

In 2019, the company became the first 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.

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 – which includes Frank Schroeder and Daniel Klessig, both BTI scientist and Cornell faculty members, along with Ascribe CEO Jay Farmer – 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.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

Header image: Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

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