InnerPlant wants plants to express their needs—via synthetic biology and some sensors

The startup equips certain crops with “biosensors” that emit colorful signals of stress.
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· 3 min read

We may not be able to talk to plants, but what if they could somehow tell us how they feel anyway?

San Francisco-based InnerPlant is using a combination of synthetic biology, sensor tech, and data science to try and get to the bottom of what stresses out certain plants.

InnerPlant recodes plant DNA with fluorescent proteins—also known as biosensors—that change colors when a plant is stressed, needs watering, or is being attacked by disease or fungi. The idea is that this visual feedback can allow a farmer to respond to issues in the field with more precision than is possible with traditional farming methods.

Although InnerPlant doesn’t yet have a commercial product, the company’s tech has been trialed in soybeans and cotton, and it plans to venture into corn—the US’s biggest crop as of 2019—by the end of 2022. The company has raised over $5.7 million since its founding in 2018.

“When the plants are under attack, they activate their immune system to protect themselves,” Shely Aronov, CEO and co-founder of InnerPlant, told Emerging Tech Brew. “What we do is we code the crops, so as they’re reacting to that stress, they’re also going to start generating a protein in their leaves that creates a fluorescent signal. And we teach them how to make that protein.”

InnerPlant so far has plans for plants to give off red, blue, and green proteins, depending on whether they are under stress from fungi or insects. To the naked eye, the plants appear normal (read: not glowing). But with optical equipment that’s tailored to pick up the signals emitted by the augmented plants—including iPhones, drones, camera-equipped tractors, or even satellites—farmers can detect whether a plant is giving off a certain color, and figure out what sort of stress it’s under as a result.

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The company plans to commercialize its soy product starting in 2024, and in the lead up it will continue running tests to make sure that the proteins signal correctly and that yields aren't negatively impacted.

It will also work with regulators like the USDA to get the technology into the market and send seeds to its breeding partners, who will program the protein-making process into seeds at the hundreds- and thousands-of-acres scale of modern farms. InnerPlant is also setting up a network of large-scale soybean farmers across states like Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Missouri, Ohio, North and South Dakota, Kansas, and Arkansas, as well as enlisting industry heavyweights like John Deere to trial and test the viability of the product.

The proteins InnerPlant uses are offshoots of the green fluorescent protein first derived from jellyfish in the 1960s, and have been used by molecular biologists for decades for a host of practical applications, from ​​HIV, malaria, and cancer research to environmental monitoring. InnerPlant claims this is the first time these proteins have been used to help grow crops.

“Molecular biologists have been making biosensors in a lab for a very long time, but people never thought we could put them out in the field. The technology that enables this actually came from a different domain. It came from chlorophyll fluorescence, which is something the plant naturally makes.” Aronov told us. “The nice thing is being able to merge those two technologies in an application that’s useful.”

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