Duke ag biotech spin-off acquired by Monsanto

Jun. 28, 2013 @ 06:21 PM

Monsanto Co. has acquired GrassRoots Biotechnology, a 6-year-old Durham-based Duke University spin-out focused on discovering genes and other genetic elements that can be used to improve the performance of agricultural crops.  

Since 2009, GrassRoots has had a technology alliance and license agreement with Monsanto focused on the discovery of gene promoters -- which act like “on and off switches” for genes -- and of trait genes for crops, according to the company’s website.
St. Louis, Mo.,-based Monsanto is a provider of seeds, genetic traits for plants to increase their resistant to insects or to herbicides, as well as herbicides. In its last full fiscal year, the company saw a profit of $2.09 billion on total net sales of $13.5 billion.
The terms of Monsanto’s acquisition of GrassRoots were not disclosed. However, in an emailed statement, the company did say that all research employees will be offered positions at Monsanto.
“After a successful multi-year collaboration, GrassRoots Biotechnology has been acquired by Monsanto,” the company said in the statement. “GrassRoots focused on gene expression and agricultural technologies that will complement Monsanto’s biotechnology research and other development work.”
GrassRoots was spun out of Duke in May 2007 to commercialize work that Philip Benfey, a professor and director of the Duke Center for Systems Biology, was doing in his lab. Benfey co-founded the company with Doug Eisner, who has a law degree from Boston University and a master’s of business administration degree from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
The company received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a loan from the Research Triangle Park-based N.C. Biotechnology Center, and other sources, according to its website and other sources.
According to the website, GrassRoots’ work has included research into gene regulation, including studies of promoters -- which are sections of DNA involved in controlling when and where a particular genetic trait is expressed in a plant. The company said that it has a proprietary technology that allows it to design synthetic genetic components that determine when certain genetic traits are expressed.
In addition, GrassRoots said its work also is to discover and deliver genes for crops such as corn, wheat, soybean and cotton to increase yield and tolerance to stress. In addition, it’s also involved in biotechnology to improve the performance of plant roots. The company said it has technology that gives it a “unique advantage” in identifying helpful trait genes in roots.
Paul Ulanch, executive director of the Research Triangle Park-based N.C. Biotechnology Center’s Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center, said the company had developed a method of growing plants in a transparent medium that allows company leaders to visually observe the roots as they grow. 
“If you’re growing a plant in the soil you can’t really see the plant in the soil, they would grow it in a transparent soil so then you can actually … visually identify the way the roots look,” Ulanch said. He said that allows the company to study the roots of different plants to see different root traits, such as plants that have healthier, longer, or more branched roots. The idea, he said, is to then select for plants that have healthier root structures.
“Their idea was that if you were able to start selecting for plants that had healthier root structures, they may be less drought, more drought tolerant, they may be able to pull nutrients out of the soil better so you have healthier characteristics overall,” Ulanch said.
Ulanch also said described another area of the company’s work in gene regulation as more focused at the cellular and molecular level, studying sections of DNA that play a part in turning certain targeted genes on and off. He said they were looking at the sections of DNA that dictate when certain genes are turned on and off in roots.
“I think primarily what they were doing then was looking at genes, proteins that they knew were expressed primarily in certain roots to characterize promoters, DNA fragments that act as promoter sequences,” he said. “They found all these different switches.”
Ulanch said he doesn’t know what Monsanto’s main interest in acquiring GrassRoots was. However, he said he believes the company’s is a success story that the center wants to see repeated in other agricultural biotechnology start-ups in the area.
“It’s a good model, a framework for other entrepreneurs, and we hope to see other ag biotechs develop in the area similarly,” he said.