Biotech Firm to Close Doors, For Now

The Whig Standard, Canada
Ian Elliot       16.02.2010

A former Kingston high-tech darling has announced that it is shutting
down its Kingston operation for at least the next three months.

Performance Plants Inc., a biotech startup that was often seen as the
star of the city’s emerging knowledge-based sector, announced late
Friday that it was mothballing its Kingston operation for 13 weeks and
closing a research and development facility in New York State
permanently.

It cited economic reasons for the shutdown, saying that it continues
to produce scientific accomplishments but has had difficulty raising
enough money to bring those technologies to the market.

The company, which was housed in the former Norcom plant, is privately
held, not publicly traded, and said there was a limited amount of
private equity financing available in the market.

In Kingston, 29 employees are affected; the Waterloo, New York office
employed six staffers.

Company president and CEO Peter Matthewman said he hopes the company
can reopen in May with new financing.

Matthewman said a committee will be looking at alternate finance
options over the coming months and will make a recommendation to the
board of directors on which direction the company should proceed.

The company specialized in research in the area of genetically
modified crops
, treating them to increase yields, enhance frost
resistance and make them less susceptible to droughts.

It was a PARTEQ spinoff from Queen’s in the mid-1990s and over the
past 15 years, has attracted a large amount of government seed money
for projects as well as forming private sector partnerships.

Late last year, it announced struck a partnership with German
bioagricultural firm Bayer Crop-Science to use the company’s patented
yield protection technology to increase cotton production in times of
short rainfall.

Locally, it formed a partnership with Lafarge to develop an “energy
farm” in Bath to grow grasses, inedible corn and trees that would be
harvested and converted into pellets for use as fuel for the plant’s
cement kiln.

Performance Plants was developing strains of plants with high carbon
concentrations that would burn more efficiently in the cement kilns.

******

From the Archives:

DROUGHT RESISTANT GM CROPS READY IN FOUR YEARS
The Guardian, UK
James Randerson

www.guardian.co.uk/environment

Genetically modified crops that are drought resistant will be grown by
farmers within four to five years, according to scientists developing
the technology.

Dr David Dennis, the chief executive of Performance Plants
Incorporated in Kingston, Ontario, said varieties of drought-tolerant
oilseed rape and maize were already being tested in field trials in
the US. He claimed the new varieties can increase yield by 40% when
the plants are most water-stressed.

Climate scientists predict that global warming will make arable land
in many developing countries less productive or unusable. Advocates of
GM crops often defend the technology by arguing that drought and salt-
tolerant varieties can play an important role in adapting to global
warming.

Last month, the then UK science minister Dr Ian Pearson told the
Guardian he thought the British public would support GM if the
industry demonstrated environmental benefits.

“I think that the public want to see benefits for GM technology for
the consumer, not just for the fertilizer company or the farmer. If GM
can demonstrably provide benefits for people living in sub-Saharan
Africa then I think the public will want to support those as products
and want to see them commercialized,” he said.

But GM’s opponents counter that drought and salt tolerance always
seems to be just out of reach. “We would take any claims that these
crops are just around the corner with a large pinch of salt because we
have heard it all before,” said Claire Oxborrow of Friends of the
Earth. So far, almost all GM varieties available commercially are
either tolerant of herbicides or produce their own pesticide.

She said that companies are using the food crisis and the threat of
climate change as a PR opportunity. “We are seeing a lot more
promises, especially now connected with the food crisis,” she said.

Dennis said his company is developing several crops with modifications
to existing genes which result in a variety of different effects. The
company plans to license its technology to major crop companies such
as Syngenta and Pioneer.

Drought-tolerant oilseed rape plants, which have been in field trials
in the American Mid-West, Colorado and California for four years, are
at the most advanced stage. A drought tolerant variety of maize has
been tested in field trials for two years. The company is also working
on modifications for more efficient water use, larger seeds, heat
tolerance and increased biomass. The latter modification is aimed at
producing fast-growing material for the nascent biofuel industry.

Dennis predicted that it would take four to five years of field
testing and clearing regulatory hurdles before the plants can be sold.
“You’ve got to show that it will work in situ in the field over
several years,” he said.

One concern is that the plants may cross with wild relatives,
potentially creating a drought-resistant super-weed that becomes
impossible to eradicate. Dennis said that this was a remote
possibility because hybrids between his crop varieties and wild
species do not survive well.

“Is there a risk in it? There’s risk in everything we do,” he said. “I
think the risk is so small I’m not worried about it. But I am worried
about what we do if we don’t develop these technologies.”

He said the world needed a 21st century version of the “green
revolution” to increase crop yields to feed the projected world
population of 9 billion by 2050.

Dennis said his company would also make the technology freely
available to farmers in the developing world. Performance Plants
signed an agreement with Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation
International – an NGO based in Kenya that has previously collaborated
with Monsanto – which allows them to distribute the technology without
paying licence fees.

“If the technology is used by small farmers we will forgo any
royalties. It will be available to them free of charge,” said Dennis.
The group is also beginning work on pursuing similar genetic
modifications in local crops such as sorghum and cassava.

The company identified its target genes by inducing genetic changes in
up to 100,000 plants – for example by blasting them with x-rays – and
screening them for desirable characteristics. Dennis’s researchers
then select those plants with the desired characteristics. The drought
tolerant varieties have a mutation that changes the activity of an
enzyme called farnesyltransferase. The modification leads to changes
in the way the plant reacts to a hormone that is involved in its
response to low water levels. “The plant responds to drought a lot
faster and more effectively than other plants,” said Dennis.

Oxborrow said she was skeptical that significant drought tolerance
could be achieved with a single gene change. “The reason we haven’t
seen drought tolerant crops come to commercial reality so far is
because the plant physiology is much more complicated than the
relatively simple technology around herbicide tolerance and insect
resistance,” she said. “Plant scientists are still working out how
plants cope with water shortage.”

Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN)

Collaborative Campaigning for Food Sovereignty and Environmental Justice
431 Gilmour Street, Second Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K2P 0R5
Phone: 613 241 2267 ext.6
Fax: 613 241 2506
coordinator@cban.ca
www.cban.ca

Join the Global Rejection of GE Wheat! www.cban.ca/GEwheat

Donate today to support the campaign  www.cban.ca/donate

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2 responses to “Biotech Firm to Close Doors, For Now

  1. Cool site, you have inspired me to try and make one myself haha.

  2. Come on guys post some comments this is a good article! Where is everybody?

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