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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Could Supercharging Starch Production Secure Our Food Future?

ClimateCrop is boosting starch metabolism in plants through non-GMO gene editing — enhancing crop resilience to climate change, increasing yields, and offering a sustainable solution to future farming challenges.

As we strain our planet's resources to meet an ever-increasing global demand for essential crops, the flaws in our agricultural system become ever more apparent. What once was a sustainable, farmer-driven endeavor has morphed into an industrial juggernaut obsessed with maximizing yields at any cost. Monocultural practices and an unyielding pursuit of productivity have left cultivated plants ill-equipped to adapt to our rapidly changing environment.

While startup innovators are setting to work redesigning our food system by advancing everything from vertical farming and regenerative agriculture to food circularity, researchers have explored other novel pathways to bolster plant resilience and productivity — with one promising avenue lying in the manipulation of starch metabolism.

Israeli startup ClimateCrop is harnessing this approach by mobilizing the hidden power within plant leaves to upgrade their performance. By enhancing a crop’s daily starch storage through non-GMO, precise gene editing (as opposed to genetic modification, which changes the DNA of an organism by introducing elements of DNA from a different organism, gene editing changes an organism’s DNA by making alterations to its genetic code), ClimateCrop says its process improves photosynthetic efficiency — leading to better yields, enhanced tolerance to drought and heat waves, and reduced strain on existing resources. This breakthrough not only addresses the urgent need for climate-adaptive and efficient plants but also signals a paradigm shift in agricultural innovation towards sustainable and resilient crop production.

“The technology originates from the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where a professor was trying to find ways to enhance photosynthesis efficiency — and they discovered a new family of proteins linked to starch regulation in plants,” explains ClimateCrop CEO and co-founder Yehuda Borenstein — a serial entrepreneur with a background in practical engineering, who is also the founder of climate-tech startups RepAir Carbon Capture, Nitrofix, Carbonade and REEMAG.

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“I’m always searching to commercialize university technologies, and I thought that this project could increase the carbon capture in trees — because they can grow faster and absorb more carbon,” Borenstein told Sustainable Brands® (SB). “Later on, I realized that it had a better and faster impact on crops.”

Borestine started ClimateCrop with co-founders Dr. Erez Eliyahu (CTO) and Dr. Vivek Tiwari (Chief Scientific Officer) in 2021. Borestine initially explored technology licensing from the Weizmann Institute's knowledge-transfer office (Yeda) and discussed it over lunch with Eliyahu and Tiwari, who had previously collaborated in 2016 on a project involving a family of proteins designed to tackle crop cultivation challenges. At the end of the meeting, Borestine posed a simple question: "Are you ready to leave your current jobs and work on the technology?" Their immediate agreement marked the beginning of ClimateCrop.

How does it work?

During photosynthesis, plants make sugars — which are stored as starch and support their metabolism. However, there are limitations: Plants do not photosynthesize at night or when under stress conditions. ClimateCrop’s technology works by targeting the specific protein responsible for stopping starch production and inhibiting it, so that starch production will continue, which enables an increase of 10-15 percent more starch content within plant leaves. After this increase, another regulator in the plant will step in and stop starch production.

ClimateCrop says the 10-15 percent extra starch has numerous benefits including higher yields of the same quality, due to the availability of additional energy for growth and development; reduced strain on resources, as more crops can be produced without the need for additional land, water, nutrients and energy; and greater resilience, due to the additional energy available for protecting plants during stresses. The company has tested its gene-edited seeds in the field with promising results.

“When we analyzed our modified plants from seed to sprout, we saw that what usually takes five days to grow took three days; and that the yield was better because every day the plant has more energy — so, you get more fruits,” Borenstein explains. “When we tested it on potatoes in a greenhouse, there was a 90 percent increase in tubers and potatoes without changing the nutrients.”

The technology has also been tested on canola and tomatoes, showing yield increases ranging from 20-90 percent in a greenhouse. In a potato trial, they observed better survival compared to wild types — attributed to the increased starch content providing extra energy for stress resilience. Notably, enhanced starch accumulation didn't harm other plant functions, as photosynthesis compensated for increased energy allocation.

“In our multiple trials from different modified crops, we did not observe any side effect, susceptibility to disease or abnormal phenotype of the plants,” Tiwari, ClimateCrop’s CSO, told SB.

Editing crop DNA

ClimateCrop technology will work by selling seeds with mutations in the protein responsible for inhibiting starch synthesis. Borenstein explained that there are two routes to do this: through gene editing or a selection of mutation-breeding techniques. However, when it comes to gene editing, CRISPR has a lot of limitations — especially concerning GMO regulations in some parts of the world.

“GMO is not practical for us. It can take 10 years before you get approval — if I can add a 10 percent in yield, but it takes me 10 years to go to market, then it’s just not practical,” Borenstein says.

Instead, the company employs a selection of breeding techniques to enhance crop starch metabolism — a process devoid of GMO elements to facilitate global adoption. This approach circumvents the limitations and challenges associated with GMO regulations, ensuring broader market access.

The timeline for ClimateCrop to be available is crop dependent, but Borenstein estimates roughly three to four years. The company continues carrying out field trials and propagation as standard processes — with chemical mutagenesis (a method used in breeding to induce mutations or changes in the DNA of plants by exposing them to certain chemicals) typically taking three to five years to integrate into breeding programs. Using CRISPR technology may extend the timeline to seven to ten years, due to additional regulatory hurdles and public acceptance considerations.

“The scalability of ClimateCrop is remarkable — if the genetics prove successful, the bottleneck lies not in scaling up production, but rather in regulatory hurdles and market adaptation,” Borenstein adds. “Importantly, our approach requires no changes to existing farming techniques, operating expenses, or capital expenditures; it's simply a matter of utilizing new seed genetics."

Climate adaptation

ClimateCrop’s ambition is twofold: Firstly, they aim to enhance the adaptability of plants to extreme weather conditions and the shifting climate, while simultaneously increasing crop yields to support population growth; and the team envisions a broad platform that benefits a variety of crops rather than focusing on a single plant species. Secondly, they strive to develop a system that empowers farmers without controlling their seeds or practices. By incentivizing farmers to adopt its technology through improved yields and carbon-credit opportunities, ClimateCrop aims to be another effective tool in mitigating climate change.

“With climate variability affecting crop suitability and yield consistency, farmers face heightened risks when selecting which crops to grow — this shift is evident in industries like winemaking, where changing climates alter grape flavor profiles and wine quality,” Borenstein says. “Looking ahead, we plan to continue enhancing plant capabilities to better withstand challenging climates through additional technologies aligned with our overarching goal of improving plant resilience to extreme weather conditions.”