What has COVID taught us about preparing for a plant pandemic?

As the world continues to battle COVID-19, the threat of infectious diseases has never been more apparent. The next devastating pandemic could hit plants. Agricultural pathogens are evolving and spreading at a disturbing rate – and the COVID pandemic offers important lessons about how we need to prepare for it.

Plant diseases can be catastrophic. One of the worst was Panama disease, which destroyed banana plantations in Central and South America in the 1950s, devastating a vital food source and industry. Panama disease is caused by a fungus and, like most fungi, it is spread by spores. These microscopic particles are carried by wind, rain and soil, in this case, from Panama to Central and South America.

Spores are easily spread by their nature, but global trade and climate change are accelerating this process. Powerful storms and other extreme weather events bring pathogens to new areas where plants have not developed resistance. Modern monoculture only increases the vulnerability of crops to infection.

Effective solutions exist to control plant diseases: chemical fungicides, resistant crop varieties and the emerging use of biological pesticides. The company I work for, Joyn Bio, is in the biologics business, where we engineer natural microbes to create high-performance biopesticides and biofertility products.

However, like SARS-CoV-2, plant diseases mutate rapidly and variants require new control strategies. For example, Panama disease was initially defeated by the introduction of the now familiar Cavendish banana variety, which was resistant. However, by mutation, a variant of the disease can now infect these plants and threaten commercial production of bananas worldwide.

To protect plants from breakthrough pathogens, we need to be prepared. The past years have unfortunately shown us the importance of such preparation.

Although it is not yet possible to vaccinate plants the way we vaccinate humans, we can learn from the success of the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which happened in record time on the basis of a solid scientific base. . Moderna produced its prototype vaccine within days of gaining access to the viral genome sequence – an achievement that was only possible thanks to existing research in immunology and virology, coupled with new technologies for vaccine development, such as mRNA vaccines.

In agriculture, we have effective surveillance systems to alert us to emerging agricultural pathogens, but we lack the framework to quickly develop solutions to these threats. We need to build the technical framework now, because once in the grip of a pandemic, it will be too late.

A new framework could rely on programs to accelerate the development of human antibiotics; due to the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, new treatments are needed, and our best bet is to identify threatening “superbugs” and then prototype new antibiotics before those strains emerge.

In the agricultural world, the mega-threats are mainly fungi, responsible for the majority of plant diseases. Existing fungicides and plant breeding techniques are effective and widely used, but if there is a breakthrough, we will be in trouble. It can take a decade or more to develop new chemical agents or plant breeding solutions.

In the meantime, there are opportunities to build on advances in synthetic biology to advance biofungicides. At Joyn Bio, we are working on new fungicidal modes of action and microbes to deliver them to crop plants. Biofungicides encompass a broad category of solutions ranging from living microbes to biological chemicals like proteins and nucleic acids. We can “preload” the discovery and development of new treatments in this category using proven biotechnology tools.

Genetic engineering technologies and synthetic biology tools allow us to identify safe and effective biofungicides, increase their performance and rapidly scale up their production.

A rapid response strategy is possible using this model, but will require a few key elements:

  • Pre-testing for safety and efficacy: We can accelerate the transition from lab to field by focusing on general categories that are known or likely to pose very low risks to humans and the environment. One approach is to administer biofungicides to crops via pretested hosts (such as harmless bacteria). Another is to use proteins or RNA that only target a specific fungal species and then quickly degrade in the environment. Of course, another big learning from COVID-19 is the importance of education and communication to enable societal acceptance of new technologies.
  • Establish libraries for rapid screening and optimization: Genetic libraries have played a fundamental role in synthetic biology innovation because they allow the rapid construction and evaluation of diverse populations of genetic variants. The same framework applies to biofungicides; we can screen thousands to millions of variants to identify and optimize those that selectively interfere with a given pathogen. Once we know that a specific agent can disrupt a disease, we can develop the means to deliver the solution, whether through an engineered microbe (like we do at Joyn Bio) or biomolecules like l RNA (pursued by GreenLight Biosciences) and proteins (such as Biotalys’ antibody technology).
  • Scalable production using standardized manufacturing and delivery systems: Biotechnology offers the opportunity to rapidly prototype and scale up the production of biofungicides using standard manufacturing systems. With inexpensive large-scale production and shelf-stable formulations, we can quickly transfer solutions from the lab to the field for evaluation and application.

The question is not whether we will experience a plant pandemic, but whether we will be ready when it hits. To protect crops and food supplies, we need to develop a preloaded solution, a platform that can be quickly scaled and deployed in an emergency.

Although we cannot protect every plant from every pathogen, we can anticipate a subset of likely diseases on key crops and take steps to prepare solutions. We can build our lifeboat today or wait to see what happens when the crisis hits. The technologies and capabilities exist today. The choice to deploy them or not is up to us.

About Charles Holmes

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