Nemgenix has focussed primarily on the development of novel traits for the control of plant parasitic nematodes. To achieve this the company has sought to apply new technologies that exploit a cellular mechanism known as RNA interference ('RNAi'). In this process gene expression is inhibited, ‘silenced’, through the destruction of specific mRNA molecules. The causative agent of the underlying mechanism of RNAi was first reported in Nature in 1998 and the authors, Craig Mello and Andrew Fire, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006 for their efforts. Much of their work was undertaken using the nematode species Caenorhabditis elegans.

The video on the right, produced by Nature publications, gives a short synopsis of the biological process of RNAi.

RNAi has many applications, including in the development of new crop traits. Here, the specificity of the mechanism can be utilised to manipulate endogenous pathways in the plant (eg to effect a plant’s stress responses) and to confer resistance to plant pathogens (eg sucking and chewing insects and plant parasitic nematodes). Many of the world’s major agribusinesses are actively pursuing crop trait development programmes based around RNAi-mediated crop traits. Indeed, a number of commentators consider the application of RNAi as constituting a paradigm shift in plant genetic manipulation in terms of both yield impact and specificity of action.

Although the exploitation of RNAi in healthcare applications has resulted in the formation of numerous biotechnology companies and significant capital raisings, it is perhaps the ag-biotech sector that offers the greater opportunity to see the realisation of RNAi’s potential. Most recently Nemgenix has demonstrated the potential application of RNAi-technology to control an important class of sucking insects which is not currently addressed by available biotech traits.

Exploiting its expertise in nematology, Nemgenix has identified through a systematic selection and screening process specific genes carried by plant parasitic nematodes which if silenced would be lethal to the organism. With these, the company has generated transgenic plants (including wheat and sugarcane, as well as model plant species) and shown their resistance to selected species of plant parasitic nematodes. Multiple patent applications have been filed as a result of this work and are now being progressed in all major territories. The company is working with various commercial partners to progress these traits through to field trials.