What Did COVID Teach Us About Plant Pandemic Preparedness?

The threat of infectious illness has never been more clear as the globe struggles to confront COVID-19. Plants may be the target of the next terrible epidemic. Agricultural diseases are rapidly developing and spreading, and the COVID epidemic has taught us valuable lessons about how to prepare for them.

Plant diseases have the potential to be devastating. Panama sickness, which devastated banana fields in Central and South America in the 1950s, destroying a vital food supply and business, was one of the deadliest. Panama disease is caused by a fungus that spreads by spores, like do most fungi. Wind, rain, and soil carry those small particles through Central America and into South America, in this case all the way from Panama.

By their very nature, spores move quickly, but global commerce and climate change are hastening this process. Pathogens are brought to new areas by powerful storms and other extreme weather events, where plants haven't acquired resistance. Monoculture cultivation merely makes crops more susceptible to illness.Chemical fungicides, resistant crop types, and the rising use of biological pesticides are all effective ways to manage plant diseases. Joyn Bio, where I work, is a biologicals firm where we engineer naturally existing bacteria to generate high-performance biopesticides and biofertility treatments.

Plant infections, like SARS-CoV-2, change swiftly, and mutations necessitate novel management measures. The introduction of the now-familiar Cavendish banana variety, which was resistant to Panama disease, for example, was initially successful in defeating the illness. However, a mutation has allowed a version of the disease to infect these plants, posing a global danger to commercial banana production.

While we can't currently vaccinate plants the same way we can humans, we may learn from the success of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was developed in record speed by building on a strong scientific basis. Moderna developed their vaccine prototype within days after obtaining the viral genome sequence—an accomplishment made possible only by current immunology and virology research, as well as novel vaccine development methods such as mRNA vaccines.

Because of the emergence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, fresh therapies are required, and our best option is to identify hazardous "superbugs," then prototype new medications before those strains break out, according to a new framework.

Fungi, which cause the majority of plant illnesses, are the most common mega-threats in agriculture. Existing fungicides and plant-breeding techniques are effective and extensively utilized, but we're in big trouble if there's a breakthrough. Developing new chemical agents or plant-breeding solutions can take a decade or more.

In the meanwhile, there are chances to develop biofungicides by building on advances in synthetic biology. We're developing new fungicidal modes of action and microorganisms to deliver them to agricultural plants at Joyn Bio. Biofungicides are a diverse group of remedies that include anything from live bacteria to biological chemistry like proteins and nucleic acids. Using established biotech technologies, we may "preload" the discovery and development of novel therapies in this area.

We can use genetic engineering and synthetic biology approaches to find safe and effective biofungicides, boost their effectiveness, and swiftly scale up manufacturing.

This approach may be used to develop a rapid-response plan, but it will require a few important components:

Pre-testing for safety and efficacy: By focusing on general categories that are known or predicted to pose extremely minimal safety concerns to humans and the environment, we may accelerate the transfer from the lab to the field. One strategy is to use pre-tested hosts to deliver biofungicides to crops (such as harmless bacteria). Another option is to utilize proteins or RNA that are exclusive to a single fungus species and then decay quickly in the environment. Another important takeaway from COVID-19 is the significance of education and communication in enabling social acceptance of new technology.

Create libraries for quick testing and optimization: Because they enable the quick synthesis and assessment of various populations of genetic variations, genetic libraries have been critical to synthetic biology innovation.Biofungicides follow the same structure; we may test hundreds to millions of variations to find and refine those that specifically interact with a certain disease. We can build the means to deliver the answer once we know that a certain agent may disrupt a disease, whether it's through an engineered microbe (as Joyn Bio is doing) or biomolecules like RNA (as GreenLight Biosciences is doing) or proteins (as Biotalys' antibody technology does).

Scalable production utilizing standard manufacturing and delivery systems: Biotechnology allows biofungicides to be prototyped and scaled up quickly using standard manufacturing techniques. We can quickly convert laboratory solutions to the field for assessment and deployment thanks to low-cost, large-scale manufacturing and shelf-stable formulations.

The question is not if a plant pandemic will occur, but whether we will be prepared when it does. We need to design a preloaded solution—a platform that can be swiftly expanded and deployed in an emergency—to safeguard crops and food supply.While we won't be able to protect every plant against every pathogen, we can predict a subset of keystone crop illnesses and take efforts to create remedies. We have the option of building our lifeboat now or waiting to see what happens when the crisis strikes. The technology and capacities are already in place. It is entirely up to us whether or not we use them.