Smart seeds: engineering plants to talk via bioluminescence

What if plants could tell us when pests are attacking them, or they’re too dry, or they need more fertilizer. One startup is gene engineering farm plants so they can communicate in in fluorescent colors. The result: a farmer’s phone, drone, or even satellite imagery can reveal what is happening in hundreds of acres of fields …

That leads to better food, fewer crop failures, and more revenue for farmers.

Support TechFirst: Become a $SMRT stakeholder

In this TechFirst with John Koetsier we meet Shely Aronov, CEO and founder at InnerPlant, and chat about what plants say, and how farmers can understand their messages.

Check out my post on Forbes, or continue scrolling for the video, audio, and transcript …

(Subscribe to my YouTube channel)

Subscribe to the TechFirst podcast


Read: Editing plant genes to allow them to communicate via bioluminescence

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Can you talk to your plants? More importantly, can they talk to you … when they’re being attacked by pests, or don’t have enough water, maybe need more fertilizer. One company is gene engineering farm plants so that they can communicate in fluorescent colors. In other words, your phone, drone, maybe even a satellite, can reveal what’s happening in a farmer’s field.

To dive in, we’re chatting with Shely Aronov, CEO and founder of InnerPlant. Welcome, Shely! 

Shely Aronov: Thank you for having me. This is great. 

John Koetsier: Hey, super happy to have you. This is super interesting. I mean, first of all, I never knew plants talk. How do plants talk? 

Shely Aronov, founder and CEO, InnerPlant

Shely Aronov: So, yeah, plants have been talking for a very long time. The way this actually works is that it’s not so much that they’re talking as much as they’re reacting to stress.

Plants have, because they’re immobile, over a long time they’ve developed ways to protect themselves. So when they’re under attack, they have a biological or a reaction on the biological level that protects themselves. And their reaction is both early and specific. So they react one way to pathogen stress like fungal pressure or insect pressure, a different way to nitrogen deficiency, water stress, and so on.

The way that we get them to communicate back is by engineering the code of the crops. So as they’re reacting to the stress, they can also generate a protein in their leaves that they don’t otherwise create … and that protein happens to fluoresce.

So that creates an optical signal that’s going to be emitted from the plant. And the plants already fluoresce — chlorophyll fluorescence is something that the plants naturally occur — this is just gonna be a unique florescence in the visible spectra, but we can then see it with the same mechanisms that exist for chlorophyll fluorescence.

So that’s a big advantage for us. 

John Koetsier: Interesting! So, they naturally fluoresce, they also give off certain chemicals when they’re under stress, is that correct? 

Shely Aronov: Yes, but the chemicals are actually different than what we do. Yes, plants communicate through their roots; they exert chemicals from their leaves. They’ve got a lot of ways to communicate, mostly because they’re immobile and they’re trying to tell their environment what to do.

So, whether it’s other plants or even if it’s insects that they want to attract, there’s quite a lot of communication that has been studied by scientists all over the place, I would say.

John Koetsier: So you’re essentially creating Google Translate for plants so that they can communicate in some way that we can understand them.

How are you doing that? What are you doing with the genes? And can you explain that in some reasonably simple terms that even an idiot can understand? 

Shely Aronov: Well, yeah. So that’s the … the recoding part is that, in the simplest way, when the plants are reacting to stress, they have a temporary change in the RNA. So the RNA is not the DNA, it’s one level after. And that change is well-studied and it creates a sequence that’s unique.

So what we do is we track that sequence.

For example, if we’re looking for fungal pressure, we’ll track a sequence that is related to fungal attacks and then activate the creation of the protein. So basically it’s like one-two, the plants now know that as the sequence is happening, reacting to stress, they’re also going to start creating that protein that they now know how to create, they don’t know otherwise.

So that’s why it creates this optical unique signal.

John Koetsier: Amazing. Yeah. I mean, obviously, I don’t know how to edit genes, and I don’t know how to make RNA express some different proteins or anything like that, but it is fascinating. Now, a lot of people obviously are already concerned about GMOs and foods that are, or plants that are altered in some way, shape, or form.

The reality is that a lot of that is done for increased yield, or better resistance to pesticides, or whatever, and it has resulted in some really good things. What do you say to people who are concerned about that? 

Shely Aronov: Well, I’ve got a lot of answers to those questions. So, first … way less people are concerned than we think, so I barely have to address that question. And I think the reason is social media has given a microphone to people that have big opinions. So there are people that are anti-GMO or anti-vaccines, or, I don’t know, anti many things, but they’re — you don’t interact with them that often. I rarely do, and I talk to a lot of people, like I literally search for this crowd, and it’s hard to find. So that’s one thing.

I think the second part of it is the reality of crops. So the crops that we’re interested in that are already genetically engineered — soybean, cotton, corn — there’s not a lot of those crops.

But for the ones that exist, they have a lot of acres and all of those acres almost completely are GMO … 97%, 95%. So, the reality is that for the crops that we work in, all they have is GMO and no farmer is interested in the commercial, conventional version of that crop.

And then the last part, I think, is really what’s important for the future is like you said, what genetic engineering was used for is just two traits commercially: herbicide tolerance and BT. Herbicide tolerance is what makes the crops withhold the herbicide so they don’t die … and the weeds do. And the BT helps the crops generate a pesticide in the leaves to kill insects. And these traits are coming to an end. And the reason is not because they’re not lucrative or valuable, it’s because of evolution.

So the more we have them in the fields — we’ve had them for 25 years — the more pests and weeds are becoming resistant, and it doesn’t matter how many iterations of the technology are created. It just doesn’t work that well anymore.

So as these are phased out, we have a huge challenge ahead of us of how do we replace the old technologies? How do we create a system that’s as functional, even more sustainable? And genetic engineering is one of the most studied, most regulated, most level tools that we have. But we need a new point of view … which is what we’re doing, which is data traits. Something new, right? And hopefully there’s going to be more people doing new things. Just, I don’t think we need more resistant traits, let’s put it this way. 

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about the farmer now. The farmer has your seed, is growing crops with the ability to fluoresce in certain conditions and communicate to him … how does he understand that language? What’s his Google Translate? How does he see that and what tools does he have or she have to know what the plants are saying?

Shely Aronov: Right, so for us, what we want to do is not just create smart seeds — which is kind of how we refer to our seeds — it’s to create an ecosystem that delivers value to the farmers, because it’s not going to be one company or one technology that changes that. It’s going to be everyone coming on board, better seeds, better technology, better inputs provided, better ways to apply, better data platforms. Together we can create something new.

So this is a big part of our strategy, including how to deliver the data to farmers. When we got started as a small startup, we were thinking maybe we’ll have to get into detection, so, how do we see our signals — because what we are actually selling is the seed technology, within the seed, that’s the main product — maybe we have to get into the data platforms.

But I think the reality is that there’s quite a lot of all of that. Farmers don’t need another See & Spray from John Deere. They don’t need another satellite imagery provider. They don’t need another data platform, they’ve got six monitors in the tractor. What they need is the new data set, and our goal is to actually partner — and we’re working on those partnerships — to get all of these players that are doing already great work and usually have a massive market penetration, to enhance their products through our data and provide that value to farmers. So then it becomes ubiquitous ’cause the farmer doesn’t need something new, they just need to use the same systems, and the systems are more valuable. 

John Koetsier: And can you talk about how that data can be captured? What do they need in terms of a device?

Shely Aronov: So the signals can be seen by very basic optical equipment, from anything, from an iPhone with a filter — like you’re saying, our cameras on the iPhone are really great … it could also be an Android — to satellite imagery. And to us, that was really the key, because everything in agriculture and especially the agriculture we’re interested in — soybeans, cotton, corn — is scale.

So, we can see this by adapting the payload and satellites, and we’re talking to satellite companies, but also through enhancing tractor equipment. The reality is that you need a spectrometer with a filter and that’s enough, or a multi-spectral camera, but the detection is really not a limiting factor.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. And we’re seeing farmers use drones more and more as well, and they can be applied in this scenario, obviously, as well if you can use your handheld and you can use a satellite, the drone works also.

What are the results you’re seeing? I don’t think you’ve released commercially yet, but what are the results you’re seeing in the lab, or … I guess, in the outdoor lab?

Shely Aronov: Yeah. Yeah. So right, our first commercial launch is going to be in 2024 growing season in the U.S.

One of the interesting trials that we just completed in a greenhouse was a drought trial between the biosensors and regular crops. Drought is the easiest thing for us to test; you don’t need fungus or things like that. And what we saw is that we started drouting the plants, meaning we stopped watering them. And within about three days, we started seeing our signals come up, and it took about three or four additional days until we saw visible signs of wilting. And by day nine, the plants were dead.

So really what you’re getting by doing this is an increased margin of time in order to act.

But if you want to talk about how this actually works at scale, ’cause I get that question often … really the thing that we’re solving for most is pathogens.

And then the problem with pathogens and the way it is today is that by the time you can see it, it’s already everywhere. So it’s not too much about finding patient zero faster. It’s about finding that first unit, which for our farmers is a hundred acres, and then finding that, applying some product, preventing the additional spread, and not having to apply it over an entire 5,000 acres or whatever it is they’re farming.

So that’s really the first evolution of scale. 

John Koetsier: Super interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard a plant referred to as “patient zero.” 

Shely Aronov: Yeah. And we haven’t even used any puns yet… [laughter]. We have to. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. So, I’m assuming that you’re working on a few different capabilities. How many things will the plants be able to communicate to farmers that they’re having issues with? You’ve mentioned drought, you mentioned pathogens, you know, some sort of disease or something like that. How many different factors will you be able to let the plants communicate about? 

Shely Aronov: We are currently doing two detections in each crop. We are working towards three and what we think is going to be feasible from satellites is three.

From an equipment, for example, a tractor, six or seven … and I would say that’s probably the max. But the limiting factor is less on the biology side, it’s more in the detection. And especially if you think about really remote detection, the signals will start overlapping. So that’s our limiting factor. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. Interesting. So you’re not in the market yet, but you must have some ideas about what this might cost a farmer. Any thoughts there? 

Shely Aronov: Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the things I’m most excited about is our business model. The technology is cool, but the business model is more important. One of the things that we did last year that was very helpful for us was we launched a community for farmers called InnerCircle where farmers pay $500 a year to be part of the community. And that helps us to build the trust, build a relationship, but also get the information we need to understand what they want on the technical side of the product building, but also on the commercial side.

One of the first learnings was what farmers want is the better seed, better technology at the same price of what they’re paying today. We were actually asking, ‘Do you want a better technology at a lower price?’ And they said, ‘Well, if it’s so much better, why is it cheaper?’ That’s fair.

So the answer was we can sell them the seed that they’re getting today, we can give them all that functionality, which means high quality germplasm, the old traits that are essentially generics, and our new communication traits at the same cost of what they’re paying today. And by that, every value that they get when they use the InnerPlant system, whether it’s increase yields or reduce cost, they keep that value.

And that was a big factor for us. 

John Koetsier: So, forgive me, because I’ve done some stuff in AgTech but I’m not an expert here. Aren’t the seeds that they’re using today protected by patent and several evolutions beyond what might’ve been natural, something like that, wouldn’t that be impossible, if not hard for you to give them the same quality that they’re having plus this additional quality for the same price?

Shely Aronov: We should talk about what makes a seed. And that’s a great question, right, that’s actually the timing and why the timing is so critical here. So a seed has two components. One is the traits, the biotech product people refer to as GMO. And like I mentioned, there’s only two commercial traits: herbicide tolerance [and] BT. And then there’s the genetics, that’s the breeding product which comes out of breeding programs that take seven years.

There’s quite a lot of companies that make that, and we have a few partners already to work with so that we can put our traits into their high quality germplasm. And the germplasm is where the yields come from. That’s really the product that then says this seed is going to have this many bushels created.

For the traits, a lot of them are coming off patent or will be coming off patent soon.

So this is really the time to act, because it’s essentially the same generic play that happens in pharma. You can now create the product at a much lower cost, because all of the development has happened in addition to what it is we’re doing. The market’s opening up…

John Koetsier: Interesting!

Shely Aronov: I like to refer to it, “a biotech industry that’s 25 years old,” right? That’s the bottom line. 

John Koetsier: That is really interesting that a lot of these traits are coming off patent, and I’m pretty sure that that’ll initiate a new arms race in seed technology and all those other things as everybody can kind of scale up and then see what they can get beyond there. Good timing, it would seem to be. I want to talk a little bit about you and why you are doing this, specifically. How did you get into farming and seeds and gene technology? Why is this your passion? 

Shely Aronov: So I’m not a molecular biologist. I also do not know how to alter genes, but my co-founder does, thankfully. I was born and raised in Israel and studied industrial engineering, and then moved to the U.S. for business school, stayed here, started a couple of businesses before InnerPlant. So that’s kind of how I got into starting businesses is that I’ve always had the passion for it. With agriculture, and with InnerPlant that’s about three and a half years old, I love the space of food. I really wanted to get into Ag because I think there’s more impact and value that could be created there, and the mission is just so important.

And then when I met Rod Kumimoto who’s my co-founder, that’s when the idea of helping farmers and making a more sustainable system merged with the biosensors concept and how we can make that come to life. He asked me what it is that my hope is, and in general, for people that listen, I think it’s just super important that we don’t … there’s a lot of all-or-nothing conversation in the world, but specifically in farming where some people just say, ‘We have to have chemistry everywhere,’ and some people say, ‘Chemistry is terrible, we cannot have any of it.’ And one of our big messages is that neither of those are the right messages. What you want to do is create a system that has the least amount of chemicals used and still is a very productive, sustainable system. And that comes for better tools, better data, and that’s really the mission behind InnerPlant.

John Koetsier: That’s super interesting and I’m glad that a lot of people are still working on things like that. I’m also pretty into the sort of Web3 crypto world here and there, and I worry sometimes that there’s so much energy and passion and time spent, and genius invested in something that is for a very small fraction of the world, and it’s hard to see how it actually returns a massive amount of benefit for the billions and billions of people on this planet that need to be fed, need a safe place to live, need the climate not to go insane…

Shely Aronov: Right.

John Koetsier: …and other things like that. So, thank you for doing that, and thank you for spending this time as well. 

Shely Aronov: Thank you. This was a pleasure. Thank you, John.

TechFirst is about smart matter … drones, AI, robots, and other cutting-edge tech

Made it all the way down here? Wow!

The TechFirst with John Koetsier podcast is about tech that is changing the world, including wearable tech, and innovators who are shaping the future. Guests include former Apple CEO John Scully. The head of Facebook gaming. Amazon’s head of robotics. GitHub’s CTO. Twitter’s chief information security officer, and much more. Scientists inventing smart contact lenses. Startup entrepreneurs. Google executives. Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. And much, much more.

Consider supporting TechFirst by becoming a $SMRT stakeholder, and subscribe on your podcast platform of choice: