USDA rules ‘color-coded’ corn plants can be sold and grown without restriction

Colored ears. (Pixabay, credit Logga Wiggler.)

A final ruling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service allows farmers and growers to run field trials on corn plants with genetic traits developed by Insignum AgTech without restriction or the need for permits.

These plants use naturally occurring pigments to signal when specific plant stresses begin. The USDA found the genetically modified “color-coding” plants posed no risk to the environment or other plants.
Insignum CEO and founder Kyle Mohler called the announcement a “milestone for Insignum AgTech and its customers. It means our edited plants can be grown and tested across the U.S. without restrictive permits, opening the door for our customers to run trials. It strengthens our ability to help farmers treat specific problems affecting their crops exactly when, precisely where and only if needed to sustainably increase crop production.”

The above photo is colored ears. (Pixabay, credit Logga Wiggler.)

Additional traits

Mohler said the company will develop additional plant traits that utilize other natural pigments, like red or blue, to give an early indication of yield-limiting factors such as insect pests or fertility loss.
The techniques used by Insignum switch on existing plant genes without importing any foreign genetic material.

Mohler said all plants have the ability to make purple, red, and blue pigments, but normally that system is turned off. Insignum creates a new gene from pieces of DNA that are already present in the plant, not from foreign DNA or transgenes.  
Insignum’s current corn product in testing causes the plant to turn purple at disease infection points as a leaf reacts to the first sign of infection at a molecular level. The purple color appears before any other symptom and about a week or more before diseases can be identified by other means.

In addition to the naked eye, the purple spots are visible by color cameras on satellites, drones, and other equipment. For example, a smart sprayer could use the same system to hunt for weeds and detect purple colors. In 2023, Mohler said, multiple drone companies were able to detect the purple spots from aerial imagery.

Cost cutting move

The color-coding can also help growers reluctant to use expensive pesticides to know where and when to use them. According to the Crop Protection Network, farmers lose about $5 billion worth of corn to diseases every year. This works out to $50 to $60 per acre. About 80% of U.S. corn farmers do not spray fungicides, according to USDA surveys.
After growing up on the family farm in Boone County, Indiana, Mohler earned his bachelor’s in biochemistry from Purdue University’s College of Agriculture and a doctorate in plant biochemistry from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He founded Insignum AgTech in 2019.

His company is working with corn but plans to work with the entire range of food plants once more funding is secured.

His own experience

The idea for his company occurred to Mohler when he saw family members applying fungicides before they knew whether or not they were needed.

“By the time a farmer sees disease, it’s too late to save the crop,” he said. “This is why many plan to spray preventively—and why that’s often profitable. However, if fungicides are applied too late, some damage is already done. If applied too early, efficacy fades and leaves crops vulnerable to late-season attack. When fungicides [are] applied at the right time, green, healthy crops remain green and healthy, leaving farmers wondering if the treatment did anything at all. Because of these challenges, most crop farmers ignore diseases altogether.”

“[With Insignum plants], farmers will gain the ability to sustainably and precisely treat when and where needed, ultimately increasing yields without arbitrarily increasing costly inputs,” Mohler said.
Right now, Insignum’s “go to market” strategy is to license its technology to seed companies. Three more years of field trials are in the offing, with a commercial product launch in the “late 2020s.”
In April 2023, Insignum AgTech and Beck’s signed an agreement to test Insignum’s corn traits in Beck’s elite varieties.

In January 2022, Insignum AgTech received a $100,000 investment from the Purdue Ag-Celerator, an agriculture innovation fund operated by the Purdue Foundry, with assistance from the Purdue College of Agriculture, the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization and the agricultural industry.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].