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Napigen: Solving the World’s Food Crisis Without Making ‘Frankenfood’

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Feeding a growing population without deforesting the planet for cropland is one of our world’s greatest challenges. The solution, according to Newark-based Napigen, is to help the crops we have now produce more. 

The use of genetically modified organism (GMO) plants is a common and controversial practice. Plants are made hardier, forced to produce more or resist pests and bacteria by introducing a new element to the plant’s DNA. DNA determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.

Dr. Hajime Sakai

Dr. Hajime Sakai

But the work Napigen does is different from other gene-editing work intended to produce higher yields. That’s because the company is changing the DNA in the plant cell’s mitochondria, not the organism itself. The company is not introducing a new element — just changing what is already there. 

President and CEO Dr. Hajime Sakai says he got the idea by studying corn plant hybridization. High-yielding plants are made by crossing two different types of parent plants. Corn plants are easy to modify by cutting the tassel off the top of one plant and using the tassel from another type to create the hybrid seed.

Plants like wheat also have male and female parts, but those parts are within one flower and nearly impossible to separate. By changing DNA in the mitochondria, the scientist can change the sex of the plants from male and female to just female. The female-only plants can then be pollinated by another plant to create a seed for a new “elite” hybrid plant. 

The process of creating the new plants is what happens over many years in nature, says Sakai. His company is just speeding up the process. Plants modified through the mitochondrial process are not considered GMOs for purposes of sale, he says. “We are not creating Frankenfood.”

Napigen has successfully completed the process in yeast and is now starting to test with wheat, but the possibilities don’t stop there. 

“Our approach has broad applications in agriculture, industrial biotechnology, human health care,” says Sakai. “We believe this technology can be harnessed to address a wide range of challenges from improving crop yields — resulting in protecting our environment by reducing the need for new farmland — to treating mitochondrial diseases.”

Sakai jokingly describes his company as “a stupid idea” that worked. The founders had no data, just the knowledge that no one had tried their approach before and the combined knowledge to build the technology. Sakai and his co-founders are all scientists let go from DuPont Pioneer during the huge downsizing of 2015.  

“I’m glad I can tell you this kind of story today,” says Sakai. “We were patient enough.”

—Kim Hoey

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