The Future of NC: Silent killer

 In Features, February 2016

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researcher at the University of California Davis once borrowed the advertising slogan “Diamonds are forever” for his own work. “Nematodes are forever,” he stamped on bumper stickers, and, indeed, generations of farmers have become adept at rotating fields and other tricks to avoid the microscopic roundworms that destroy about 10% of crops worldwide every year. 

A dent in the destruction may be in sight. Scientists at biotechnology company
AgBiome LLC in Durham say they plan to launch a product in the next few years that will eliminate the root-knot nematode before plants even begin to grow using the galaxy of organisms, bacteria and fungi known as the plant microbiome.

Steve Koenning has seen swaths of soybeans destroyed and the same cotton field attacked by two different types of nematodes. Out of an estimated 30,000 species, most of which are harmless — beneficial even — about 3,000 attack plants. With help from experts such as Koenning, professor emeritus of plant pathology at N.C. State University, North Carolina farmers have learned to manage the destructive ones.

Christy Wiggins hopes, in the future, such worries won’t exist. A scientist at AgBiome, Wiggins is screening thousands of microbes for active strains that could be used as seed coatings, protecting plants from one particular pest: the root-knot nematode.

Dan Tomso is chief scientific officer for AgBiome, which was founded in 2012 and employs 46 people at its new 30,000-square-foot facility in Research Triangle Park. He calls the Triangle, home to at least 28 entrepreneurial companies applying cutting-edge technology to agriculture, the Silicon Valley of ag biotech. More than 80 ag biotech companies employ more than 8,700 workers across the state, according to the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

AgBiome made headlines in August when it raised $34.5 million from investors including Syngenta Ventures, the venture capital arm of Swiss ag biotech giant Syngenta AG, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The company says it has isolated and identified an unprecedented number of microbes. Just as scientists understand more about the human microbiome — the trillions of microscopic creatures living in and on the body — leading to an explosion in diets and supplements to take advantage of it, plants too have a microbiome.

“It’s been an invisible science that’s possible now because we have technology that didn’t exist even five years ago,” says Tomso. “We’ve studied the plant and studied the soil. There’s this whole kingdom of organisms, bacteria and fungi in the soil and on the plant doing all kinds of things to affect the health of that plant.”

In December, Wiggins and others had a breakthrough with a root-knot nematode experiment. They are now able to screen the AgBiome collection of microbes in vitro, meaning in a culture dish or somewhere outside a living organism, using a system of  rectangular plates with 96 small wells. It is vastly more efficient than the time- and space-consuming work of screening microbes on plants.

Wiggins says AgBiome anticipates holding clinical trials next year and having a product on the market to fight the root-knot nematode by 2019 or 2020.

One example: If a go-getter arrives at the office at 5 a.m., the heat may come on automatically. “It’s all this information that will become more automated, but again — the key is to be able to get and analyze data quickly and real estate is usually a decade or more behind other industry segments,” Shircliff says.

The GSA building, built in 1917, is the oldest structure Intelligent Buildings has worked on. Its upgrades enable various systems to work in concert with how the government employees use the space, Shircliff says. “If someone reserves a conference room, a few minutes before the reservation, it’ll start bringing up the air temperature and enable the lighting system, based on the schedule.” The headquarters is now a model for federal buildings nationwide.

Murchison and Shircliff have also made a mark in North Carolina. Intelligent Buildings helped plan the systems for the Duke Energy Center, a 48-story office tower in Charlotte. After opening in 2010, it was a grand prize winner in Siemens AG’s Smartest Building in America Challenge. In 2011, they helped launch Envision Charlotte, a voluntary program with a goal of reducing energy usage in uptown Charlotte by 20% over five years. By June 2015, had reduced energy usage by 16%, saving $17 million in annual energy costs.

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