Micropep Technologies, a Toulouse-based biotech, has raised 4M to develop peptides that boost plant growth and disease resistance by regulating gene expression.

Micropep Technologies has raised a Series A funding with the support of two new investors, Sofinnova Partners, the largest industrial biotech fund in the world, and Irdi Soridec Gestion. The company aims to use the funding to develop its miPEP technology into new agricultural products.

The miPEP technology uses naturally-occurring peptides that increase the levels of gene-regulating microRNA (miRNA) molecules. miRNA are short strands of RNA of about 21 nucleotides that regulate gene expression by blocking the mRNA molecules that carry the information to produce a specific protein. Usually, miRNA targets transcription factors, a set of genes which in turn regulate the expression of other genes.

Up until now, the scientific community focused on the shorter, mature miRNA molecules. However, as it turns out, looking at the longer, immature miRNA molecules opens up exciting possibilities. As Thomas Laurent, CEO of Micropep Technologies, told me, “What we discovered was that the primary transcript of miRNA, a sequence between 300 to 3000 nucleotides long, contained an open reading frame coding for small peptides.” 

Micropep synthesized these naturally-occurring peptides and applied them to plants to observe their effect. As one might expect, when the peptides were directly sprayed on plants, they increased the amount of corresponding miRNA. This in turn lowered levels of certain transcription factors.

The central dogma of molecular biology. miRNA inhibits gene expression by preventing mRNA from translating into protein.

Micropep wants to develop this technology for use in agriculture. Thomas Laurent elaborated that their goal lies in “identifying and using these natural peptides to develop solutions that we can apply to a plant in order to transiently regulate key gene expression through miRNA.” This in turn can to boost the growth of plants and increase their resistance to disease.

Micropep is now developing large-scale production of its technology for agricultural applications. One option involves making a peptide identical to the natural one through chemical synthesis. The other option, bioproduction, involves genetically engineering bacteria or yeast to produce the peptide.

miPEP bears some similarities to methods using peptides with RNA interference to silence plant genes. US-based RNAgri is making peptides that deliver RNA interference molecules into plant cells to silence the expression of single genes. Additionally, a recent Australian study showed that CLE peptides could help produce bigger tomato fruit.

Furthermore, microorganisms could be used to boost plant growth in agriculture as well. Last year, the Belgian biotech Aphea.Bio raised €7.7M to combine natural biomolecules, living microorganisms and genetically-encoded proteins for new bioherbicides and biopesticides.

Out of the many plant gene regulation approaches, it is difficult to predict which one will fare the best on an agricultural scale. Nonetheless, Micropep Technologies’ approach may prove to be an effective means of boosting agricultural yields.

Images by Singkham, udaix/Shutterstock

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