A small local companies hope to deploy technology in the coming years that could help seed growers and distributors more quickly determine the genetic makeup of their products.
NanoBio Designs Inc., which has its offices in the 16 Tech Innovation District and its lab space at Purdue University’s Bindley Bioscience Center in West Lafayette, is still in the early stages of developing its ExpresSeed platform. The technology works by using microparticles to detect whether certain DNA signatures, such as genetic modifications, are present – and at what levels – in harvested grains and other row crops.
This is important to ensure that buyers sell and customers acquire the specific seeds or grains they intend to market.
The technology to identify specific types of seeds and grains already exists through polymerase chain reaction testing, commonly known as PCR, which is the same technology used to test for coronavirus. But PCR machines can only operate in sterile, laboratory-like environments, and tests often have turnaround times of several days. Additionally, results can be inconsistent when testing goes beyond simply examining DNA sequences.
Some on-site testing capabilities also exist, but the technology relies on reading proteins rather than actual DNA. And these dietary proteins can be influenced by many factors, including climatic conditions and a product’s place of origin.
NanoBio Designs intends to make genetic testing technology – more precise – easily accessible to seed companies and grain distributors.
“Protein testing has its place, but it’s not a genetic test,” said Ryan Skaar, co-founder and COO of NanoBio Designs. “If we can bring a genetic test on site, where PCR technologies cannot go, that represents great added value (for distributors), because of the precision and sensitivity that can be provided to detect the traits .
NanoBio launched in Iowa in 2017 and moved to Indianapolis in 2021. Last year, it received the Innovative Small Business of the Year award from the Indiana Small Business Development Center. The company has four employees.
By having technology on-site to conduct testing, Skaar said, distributors can verify before sale that a grain or seed supply is not contaminated. This may include ensuring that specific types of grains, such as those grown for biofuels or pharmaceutical purposes, are not mixed with those grown for consumer products like corn chips, oils.
Grain analyzes typically require grinding and extraction, and this is also the case with ExpressSeed. But rather than shipping that mixture out for testing, distributors using ExpresSeed would instead place it in a cartridge placed in a tabletop device that can read the DNA sequences in the microparticles.
“We don’t want distributors to have to wait three days to get their own genetic result,” he said. “We want them to be able to test every truck load and know exactly what it’s made of, so they can put it in a bin, put it on a rail car and send it where they need it. »
NanoBio already has a patent pending on the biochemical components of its technology. It plans to file additional patents on the physical elements (the test devices and associated cartridges, which are currently in the prototyping stage) in the coming months.
The technology should be able to test DNA from corn and soybeans out of the box, but the company hopes to expand into other areas of agriculture and health. Skaar said NanoBio already has informal relationships with Atlanta, Ind.-based Beck’s Hybrids and Iowa-based Kent Corp., but she hopes to launch formal pilot programs with hybrid seed distributors and distributors. grain and feed operators by mid-2024.
Efforts to speed up production and launch come as governments around the world continue to roll out regulatory language related to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture oversee the distribution of GMOs. The European Union also has strict rules on the production and mixing of GMO and non-GMO food products.
“From an agricultural and bioscience industry perspective, genetic modifications will continue to make their way into the food, oil and pharmaceutical supply chain,” Skaar said. “Being able to track them more effectively is key to their adoption, particularly if we want to achieve these goals of feeding more people in a more cost-effective and nutritious way. It’s really important to have the technologies in place at these sites to facilitate their distribution for their intended purposes.
Skaar said another advantage is that the company’s technology won’t take up as large a physical footprint as is needed for PCR testing. Instead, NanoBio Design aims to “get to a point where you could run it from the back of the van if you really wanted to.”
For now, though, the company is still working to get off the ground, he acknowledged. It has yet to turn a profit and continues to seek angel investors and venture capital firms to fund its growth.•