Monsanto Partners with Synthetic Genomics

Monsanto Partners with Synthetic GenomicsUT Sandiego – by Bradley J. Fikes

Monsanto Corp. has acquired part of a La Jolla agricultural biotech in a deal that gives the St. Louis food giant a presence in San Diego for the first time.

Monsanto purchased crop-boosting microbial technology from Agradis, a spinoff of Synthetic Genomics, the companies said Wednesday. Monsanto also made an equity investment in Synthetic Genomics and signed a research agreement with the company. Terms were not disclosed.

The acquisition gives Monsanto access to some of the newest and most sophisticated technologies for improving crop yields and preventing loss from disease. And while genetic technology is fundamental, it’s mostly being used to find naturally occurring beneficial microbes.

Synthetic Genomics was founded in 2005 by gene pioneer J. Craig Venter to solve energy and environmental challenges. As part of the acquisition, seven Agradis employees researching helpful microbes were hired by Monsanto, said Joe Mahler, Synthetic Genomics’ chief financial officer.

“These are natural microbes to enhance crop productivity and crop protection,” Mahler said. “It’s all part of a sustainable program to increase production and increase yield.”

Synthetic Genomics formed Agradis in 2011 with Plenus S.A. de C.V., a Mexican investing company. Its goal is to continue modern agricultural advances dubbed the Green Revolution because they drastically improved yields and helped countries turn from famine to self-sufficiency.

Monsanto is taking over Agradis’ office in La Jolla. It represents Monsanto’s first presence in San Diego, said spokeswoman Sara Miller.

Helpful microbes perform such tasks as “fixing” the nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. Under the research agreement, Monsanto and Synthetic Genomics will apply genetic technology to discovering microbes that could be turned into crop-boosting products.

“From our standpoint, it’s just proving out the commercialization opportunities and the benefits that biology will have in improving sustainability,” Mahler said. “That’s where everything’s going. The types of things we’re working on are improved yields, using less land and less water.”

Synthetic Genomics and Plenus are forming a new company with the parts of Agradis not purchased by Monsanto, Mahler said.

The company, AgraCast, controls breeding and genetic improvement technologies for castor and sweet sorghum, along with an antifungal product for fruits and vegetables. Employees with the new company will move out of the Agradis office to a new one nearby, Mahler said.

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