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Insignum AgTech expands testing 
after ruling on gene technology
By Michele F. Mihaljevich
Indiana Correspondent

ATLANTA, Ind. – A recent ruling by the USDA will allow an Indiana-based company to expand testing of its gene designed to enable diseased corn plants to change color, the company’s founder and CEO said.
The Nov. 14 ruling will also allow Insignum AgTech to begin breeding the gene into elite varieties, Kyle Mohler said.
The plants use naturally occurring pigment to signal when specific plant stresses begin, according to a release. A plant turns purple to indicate a fungal infection has started but is not yet apparent, Mohler said in the release.
“This ruling means that we can begin testing our gene in the field without restrictive permits required,” Mohler told Farm World. “We were confident the USDA would quickly determine that our plants are safe and remove the restrictions on growing our plants in the field. Our new genes are made up of DNA already found in the plant, so we’re not introducing anything foreign or risky that would require a special safety review. The pigments used to signal to farmers can be found in natural varieties of corn. I bet you’ve seen indigenous corn varieties that have many colors on the same cob, the same that we use in our corn.”
The technology works by combining two innate plant functions, Mohler previously explained to Farm World. “As soon as a spore gets into a leaf, the plant activates its defense system. We use that genetic response to turn on the plant’s pigment production system. All plants have the ability to make purple/red/blue pigments, but normally that system is turned off. So, we’re creating a new gene from pieces of DNA that are already present in the plant, without foreign DNA. Our gene is a new tool for growers made from natural products.”
Mohler founded Insignum AgTech in 2019.
The USDA’s ruling means the company can perform testing with less isolation from other corn, constant monitoring and piles of paperwork, Mohler told Farm World. The company intends to license the gene to the seed companies, and the ruling eliminates those barriers for more of them to begin testing. It’s a significant step toward farmers seeing the gene in their seed lineup, he noted.
The gene has been tested at Mohler Family Farms for three years, he said. Last year, they tested in collaboration with Beck’s, which they will continue and expand in 2024, Mohler said.
Before making its decision, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reviewed 12 plants modified using genetic engineering to determine whether they posed an increased plant pest risk as relative to non-modified comparators, the agency said in a release.
“APHIS found these modified plants were unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated plants,” the agency said. “As a result, they are not subject to regulation under 7 CFR part 340. From a plant pest risk perspective, these modified plants may be safely grown and bred in the United States.”
Insignum AgTech could commercially sell its trait in the United States today, Mohler pointed out. “But some grain gets sold overseas. Now that we have this first approval, we will apply for deregulation around the world. Depending on the country, the process will take a few years still. By the time seed companies have completed their trials, we expect to be completed with the regulatory process and be ready for a widespread launch.”
In the meantime, Insignum AgTech will get some seeds to hundreds of farmers who have invested in the company through Ag Ventures Alliance. There’s a network of farmers from Iowa and Tennessee, and across the country, who want to bring new technology forward that improves on-farm profitability, Mohler said.
“We’re thrilled at the level of excitement for our tech that we’re seeing from across agriculture. We’re ready to get started on our next crop and our next trait. All crops have these pigments, think green versus red apples, purple cabbage, red potatoes, you name it. The strategy will translate perfectly, and we can use different colors to signal for different stresses, such as insect pests.
“Investment capital has been tight in all industries over the past year, though,” he said. “We’re looking for strategic partners who can help us deliver new products that can help farmers apply products exactly when, precisely where, and only if needed to optimize crop production.”