NATURAL. What we thought was useless could still serve and even have an extremely positive role. It is the discovery made by the Laboratory of research in plant sciences (LRSV, mixed unit CNRS / University of Toulouse) on the role of microRNAs published in Nature in 2015 . This scientific breakthrough is now leading to the development of a start-up that is of interest to two venture capital companies. Which have just contributed 4 million euros to develop the fertilizers and pesticides of the future.
Present in the cells of most living beings, the microRNAs produce, at least among the plant s, natural peptides that can temporarily regulate the expression of genes of interest that can act for example on germination, flowering, fruiting, but also on the defenses against attacks of pathogens. " MicroRNAs are natural tools that cells use to regulate the quantity of certain particularly important messenger RNAs, and thus through them the expression of most of the key genes for plant development ", explains Thomas Laurent, general manager of Micropep .
An additional supply of peptides improves the performance of the plant
NUCLEOTIDES. In all plants, the genesis of a microRNA begins with a maturation phase during which a long sequence ranging from 300 to 3000 nucleotides is cut to obtain a small sequence of only 21 nucleotides: a microRNA. mature". It is this mature microRNA that then makes it possible to regulate the expression of the gene that corresponds to it. Until now, it was thought that apart from the mature microRNA, the rest of the long initial sequence was useless. However, the LRSV team has detected peptides (small proteins) it calls "miPEP". It then demonstrates that an additional supply of these peptides makes it possible to increase the amount of the corresponding microRNA, and consequently to temporarily influence the genes controlled by this microRNA.
Jean-Philippe Combier, co-discoverer of the miPEP. © La dépêche du midi
This fundamental discovery is rapidly supported and protected by the Society for Acceleration and Transfer of Technology (SATT) of Toulouse, which invests nearly 500,000 euros in patents and proofs of concepts between 2013 and 2015. The potential of the discovery is indeed immense: the plants possess between 200 and 1000 microRNAs which are all directly or indirectly involved in the major metabolic functions of plants, such as growth or their capacity of resistance. In another article Toulouse researchers show for example that an additional supply of miPEP172 (targeting microRNA # 172) accelerates the nodulation of soybean, a beneficial symbiosis between the roots of the plant and plants. bacteria allowing this legume to better utilize nitrogen from the air to grow. Similar evidence of efficacy has been made for mycorrhizal symbiosis, another beneficial association between fungi and roots that facilitates plant uptake of soil organic matter. By targeting the right microRNAs, the miPEPs could thus be used to significantly improve the plants' natural abilities.
A new generation of environmentally friendly organic inputs
REVOLUTION. The idea becomes obvious: to develop a new generation of biological inputs from these miPEPs to reduce the use of chemicals traditionally used in agriculture . It became the goal of Micropep Technologie, the company created in April 2016 by Thomas Laurent and the two main researchers behind the discovery, Jean-Philippe Combier and Dominique Lauressergues, with the help of SATT Toulouse Tech Transfer. " This is a breakthrough technology that could really revolutionize plant biology and agriculture says Thomas Laurent. miPEPs are molecules of natural origin, easily degradable in environment, extremely specific, and with a unique and extremely precise mode of action: the temporary regulation of genes via microRNAs.We are thus at the crossroads between plant genetics, which is generally at the heart of the selection work of seeds, and that of biological inputs aimed at significantly reducing the use of pesticides in agrochemicals.And although we speak of genetics, we do not touch the DNA of plants ".  If the fundraising of Tuesday, March 6 has been necessary, it is because the development work is still important and we will have to invest a lot more and hire researchers. First work: to continue to identify new peptides by associating for each cultivated plant the peptides and the genes that they influence. It is therefore a "library" of molecules that must be patiently built. Then we will have to work on the development of formulated products that can be easily used by farmers. The production of the peptides can be carried out either synthetically by imitation of the molecule or by biological means by inducing its manufacture by bacteria. The venture capital companies have not been mistaken: 4 million euros will not be too much, but the game is worth the candle.