BioLumic, a New Zealand-based agtech company, has teamed with US seed producer Gro Alliance to scale a novel technology that uses UV light to treat seeds. Biolumic says its treatments can improve yield and quality, as well as make plants “more armour-plated” without needing to be re-bred.
Biolumic’s light treatment was first developed for specialty-crop seedlings such as tomatoes, lettuces, and strawberries. In what Chief Science Officer Jason Wargent calls a “eureka moment,” they also discovered that the treatments work for dry seeds. Wargent says they’ve already shown that ultraviolet light can boost the yield of corn by +15% and soybean plants by 12%. What’s more, the technology is organic and only requires a few seconds of light exposure to treat the seeds.
The way it works is pretty interesting, focusing on a something called “photmorphogenesis,” or the regulation of gene expression with light. “The story of the company was actually 600 million years in the making, because that’s when the first mechanistic changes occurred in plants,” explains Wargent.
These changes occurred in response to ultraviolet light, which is divided into three groups of wavelengths. UVC waves are the shortest and strongest, but are completely absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer and atmosphere. UVA wavelengths are the longest and weakest. The ozone layer blocks most of the UVB waves, but those that sneak through are responsible for sunburn in humans—and in high concentrations, they can damage DNA, cells, and crucial proteins in plants.
Around 600 million years ago, the Earth’s ozone layer had developed enough for organisms to venture out of the deep sea and into the shallows. By about 400-500 million years ago, the ozone layer became thick enough for plants to emerge on land. The ozone layer at that time was much thinner than it is now, though, meaning more ultraviolet light was able to reach the surface. Plants in turn developed mechanisms to detect levels of UVB radiation and defend themselves from it with the production of flavonoids, which act like a sort of sunscreen.
In 2011, scientists in Germany and Scotland discovered a protein called UVB resistance 8 (UVR8) that enables plants to perceive UVB. When plants perceive the everyday presence of ultraviolet light with the UVR8 protein, they make minute adjustments to the way they grow in response. “Like they’re getting ready,” says Wargent. “Like they’re putting their armor plating on a little bit. And that gave us a toolkit to think about actually programming plants with UV.”
Biolumic has since developed “recipes” of ultraviolet treatments that induce certain traits, such as improved yield, quality, root growth, and resilience. Biolumic admits it doesn’t entirely understand what is going on inside the treated plants, only that it triggers a bunch of genes to be expressed and “unlocks its potential.” And it seems to work on every kind of seed they’ve experimented with, including soybean, corn, canola, lettuce, broccoli, peas, ryegrass, wheat, oats, barley, rice, and even cannabis. They’ve also found that light-treated plants are better able to defend against pests and disease.
The company can deliver the treatment to seeds on a conveyor belt with just a few seconds of light exposure before they are bagged for distribution. The treatments have about a six month shelf life, according to Wargent. BioLumic has tested light-treated seeds on more than 3,000 United States field plots over the course of three growing seasons since 2021. The company’s partnership with Gro Alliance will mark the first commercial-scale application of the technology for corn and soybeans.
The joint project will start at Gro Alliance’s Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, production facility and expand across the Midwest starting in 2025. Biolumic also has plans to provide access to its technology to select seed companies starting later this year, while the in-seed treatment itself will be commercially available starting in 2024. Learn more at Biolumic HERE. (Sources: Successful Farming, AgFunder, Roads&Kingdoms)