by Benson Hill

How We Outgrew Photosynthesis

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August 16, 2016

In 2012, Benson Hill Biosystems launched as a photosynthesis company. Our co-founders Dr. Tom Brutnell and Dr. Todd Mockler, researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, had developed some promising approaches to make photosynthesis more efficient. They took a close look at native gene expression patterns and leveraged spatial and temporal understanding of these networks to provide more refined gene regulation.

 

Benson Hill was created to deliver on the promise of their research. We licensed tools and technology from the Danforth Center and investing heavily in computational infrastructure to develop CropOS™, a systems platform to improve photosynthesis and crop performance.

 

Our platform proved effective. Benson Hill’s rate of success in using CropOS™ to predict plant outcomes is far beyond what the agtech industry has seen before. We developed a system to help us tackle one of the most complex trait targets in existence and couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

 

Over the last two years we have established partnerships with companies interested in enhancing primary metabolism for their target crop species. A partnership with Limagrain, a cooperative of over 2,000 French farmers that is also the fifth largest seed company in the world, is leveraging CropOS to identify and develop yield traits for corn and wheat. J.R. Simplot and CTC are employing the platform to achieve substantial yield and biomass increases in potatoes and sugarcane, respectively.

 

Potential partners we spoke with also expressed the need to improve other targets that matter to their unique customers. By focusing on a challenge as fundamental as photosynthesis, CropOS had amassed data on a whole-genome basis that could be applied to multiple targets, so the potential to identify approaches to impact traits such as drought tolerance, nutrient efficiency, and plant architecture already existed in the platform. We responded to this opportunity by opening access to CropOS for the pursuit of additional trait targets.

 

We also heard from some companies interested in applying CropOS to improve plant breeding rather than transgenics, so we expanded our focus to a broader range of applications, to also include plant breeding and genome editing. Recently we announced a partnership with the Department of Energy TERRA Sorghum program and have just established multiple additional partnerships, which will be announced soon. The result for each will be to leverage CropOS to assess the genetic resources of populations and derive actionable solutions to accelerate breeding.

 

We are making significant, direct impacts on agriculture ourselves, but we make the greatest impact as we empower others by enabling them to leverage the platform that we built. We are expanding the community of innovators to include organizations of all sizes with an interest in improving crop performance. This means advancing genetic gain for a wider range of crops, especially those that have received relatively little R&D investment to date. It also means expanding the scope of traits and targets to include some of the most complex research challenges in plant performance.

 

Benson Hill is growing outward from its origins, but our roots are thriving. We continue to advance a portfolio of trait opportunities in photosynthesis, and going forward we will apply CropOS to meet a broader range of needs for our partners as together we work to advance agriculture.