Responsible for losses estimated at BRL 5 billion each harvest, the greatest threat to sugarcane farming in Brazil is an insect measuring just over 20 millimeters long: the Diatraea saccharalis moth in its larval phase, better known as the ‘sugarcane drill.’ To combat the pest, São Paulo company PangeiaBiotech has developed an innovative solution, using even smaller organisms and genetic engineering tools.
The startup is developing genetically modified strains of sugarcane that associate the production of two bioinsecticide proteins from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) with a gene extracted from another microorganism, Agrobacterium sp., which gives it greater tolerance to pesticides. Genes from Bt bacteria have been used in GM processes of several plants to control pests for more than two decades.
Named BtRR, the technology was developed with the support of the Innovative Research in Small Businesses (Pipe) program of São Paulo research foundation Fapesp, the Brazilian Company for Industrial Research and Innovation (Embrapii), and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa), which is conducting tests on its research areas in the capital city of Brasilia. The next step is to find business partners who are interested in licensing the technology. The company intends to launch the first variety on the market before the planting of the 2022/23 harvest. “We expect to have our GM sugarcanes on 20 percent of Brazil’s planted area by 2030,” says engineer and agronomist Paulo Cezar de Lucca, creator of the project and PangeiaBiotech, founded in 2015.
Brazil’s genetically modified sugarcane But the startup’s genetically modified sugarcane is not Brazil’s first. The pioneer was the CTC20BT strain, created in the lab of the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC), an organization supported by producers and companies from the sugar-energy sector in the São Paulo town of Piracicaba. CTC20BT was approved for use in 2017 by the National Biosafety Technical Committee (CTNBio), an institution that examines genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The following year, the CTC had its second genetically modified variety approved: CTC9001BT. These two strains also employ a Bt gene, the purpose of which is to produce a protein from the Cry family, which acts as a bioinsecticide. When ingested by the pest, the proteins bind to receptors in the insect’s intestine, causing fatal damage to its digestive system.
PangeiaBiotech’s new strains represent a step forward in the technological evolution of sugarcane by using two different Cry proteins. “Double transgenics already existed in crops such as corn and soybeans. Now we are bringing it to sugarcane,” explains Mr. De Lucca. For agronomist Hugo Molinari, researcher at Embrapa Agroenergy and a participant in the project, the use of two proteins with insecticidal properties provides greater durability to the technology, reducing the risk of developing resistance.
Besides double transgenics, the strains developed by the São Paulo startup incorporate the cp4-epsps gene of Agrobacterium sp., which is tolerant to glyphosate. and found naturally in soil. “Resistance to glyphosate is innovative in sugarcane crops. The farmer will use less pesticides during production. There is no sugarcane on the market that is resistant to both the ‘sugarcane drill’ and glyphosate,” highlights Mr. De Lucca.
He explains that, as things stand, farmers need to control weeds by carefully applying herbicides between the sugarcane lines, as the product can damage the crop. Tractors are used for this job, in what is a time consuming and expensive operation, mainly due to the cost of diesel fuel. “If the sugarcane is resistant to the herbicide, the producer can spray it from the air, saving fuel,” says the creator of PangeiaBiotech. Furthermore, it allows for savings to be made on pesticides, says Mr. Molinari.
Another innovation in development at PangeiaBiotech is the production of a genetically modified sugarcane strain which, in addition to being resistant to the ‘sugarcane drill’ and glyphosate, will also be resistant to the Sphenophorus levis beetle, known as the ‘bicudo.’ “With the advent of mechanization, sugarcane started to be harvested raw and no longer by burning the cane field, which increased the prevalence of pests. They died during the burning process, but now they live among the straw and multiply,” explains Mr. Molinari. According to the researcher, the damages caused by the bicudo beetle are estimated at BRL 2 billion (USD 390 million) per year in Brazil and there is still no effective chemical or biological control method. A growing player in genetic modification
Once it has put its BtRR strains on the market, PangeiaBiotech will have consolidated a change in its business model. According to Mr. De Lucca, the initial purpose of the company was to offer services of genetic modification of plants, which was still incipient in Brazil. “This project came to fruition. We have already served around 25 research centers in Brazil. They send the gene of interest and we return the modified plants four months later. This way, the researcher can focus on the discovery of new genes and see the answer to their theory in a short time,” explains Mr. De Lucca. Besides sugarcane, the startup also carries out genetic transformation of tobacco, tomatoes, and corn.
In 2017, as a result of the company’s relationship with Embrapa Agroenergia — one of its clients at the time — the double transgenic sugarcane project first came about. “The partnership with Embrapa allowed us to make a great leap forward. Now, the idea is to produce our own varieties,” says Mr. De Lucca.
Among PangeiaBiotech’s clients are the Center for Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering (CBMEG) of Unicamp, the Sugarcane Center of the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC), and the Interuniversity Network for the Development of the Sugar-Energy Sector (Ridesa), which includes ten federal universities. According to Monalisa Sampaio Carneiro, professor at the Center of Agrarian Sciences of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), which is part of the network, Ridesa is responsible for the development of more than half of the strains cultivated in the country, which are obtained by genetic improvement techniques, i.e., by crossing different plant varieties. Ridesa now uses the transformation services of PangeiaBiotech to obtain genetically modified versions of its strains. “By receiving the already genetically transformed plant from PangeiaBiotech, researchers and companies working with sugarcane improvement can save up to two years in their research,” she says.
José Antônio Bressiani, agricultural engineer and director of biotechnology company GranBio, also used PangeiaBiotech’s services for the development of a strain of GM energy cane, currently being tested in the field. With a higher fiber content than regular sugarcane, energy cane is used for the production of second-generation ethanol, obtained from straw and bagasse. The strains currently sold were created by means of genetic modification. Now, the company plans to launch a GM strain of energy cane that is resistant to the ‘sugarcane drill’ and pesticides. PangeiaBiotech is also involved in the project. At the same time, it is developing another strain of energy cane with genes for drought resistance and increased biomass, in research supported by Fapesp.
For agricultural engineer Gonçalo Amarante Guimarães Pereira, of the Institute of Biology (IB) of Unicamp, startups such as PangeiaBiotech can play a key role in the development of the Brazilian sugar-energy sector, with a focus on the global biofuels market. “Small and agile, startups have great capacity to innovate,” he highlights.
The challenges of sugarcane Coordinator of the Unicamp Genomics and Expression Laboratory since its creation in 1997 and chief scientist at GranBio between 2012 and 2016, Mr. Pereira notes that in recent years the genetic improvement of sugarcane has not ensured the leaps in productivity observed in other crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat. “There is a limit to traditional genetic improvement,” he explains. “A new plant takes about 10 years to be produced, while a new variant of a microorganism capable of attacking it can appear in days.” With transgenics, Mr. Pereira says, it is possible to develop strains that are resistant — and therefore more productive — to new diseases in less time when compared to conventional genetic improvement work.
Though hundreds of varieties of sugarcane have been created according to different climate and soil conditions — of which about 20 dominate the market —productivity has remained more or less stable in recent years. PangeiaBiotech hopes to contribute to changing this scenario, a quarter of a century after the emergence of the first Bt varieties in North American corn and cotton crops.
There is a commercial and a scientific explanation for this delay, according to the researchers. Mr. Molinari, from Embrapa Agroenergia, says that sugarcane cultivation — while important to Brazil’s energy mix — does not represent a large enough market share to convince multinationals to invest in research. “Sugarcane cultivation is not global, its planting is restricted to the tropics. Against the giant markets of soy and wheat, it is small.”
The scientific justification stems from the complexity of the object of study itself. “The sugarcane genome is much more complex and extensive than that of other plants,” says biologist Michael dos Santos Brito, of the Institute of Science and Technology of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). Not by chance, it was only at the end of 2019 that the most complete sequencing of the plant genome was concluded: 373,869 genes were mapped, corresponding to 99.1 percent of the total.
The sequencing was the result of Fapesp’s Bioenergy Research Program (Bioen), launched in 2008 to stimulate bioenergy production in Brazil. It is also within the scope of Bioen that Mr. Brito is working on a project to identify and characterize new sugarcane promoters, DNA sequences responsible for regulating gene production. With this project, he intends to create a database that can be used for further research. “Sugarcane is not a simple plant; many resources are needed to research it. We need to take advantage of the know-how that we have developed until now and that puts us ahead of the whole world,” he says.
This article was originally published in Portuguese by Revista Pesquisa Fapesp and republished under the Creative Commons license.
Suzel Tunes is a reporter at Revista Pesquisa Fapesp