New Technology Unlocks Super Powers of Natural Enzymes

The natural world is full of enzymes with antimicrobial properties. The challenges? How to identify which enzymes will help fight common plant pathogens, and how to make sure they are in place and active at the moment when their super powers are needed most. Zymtronix is developing the answers.

In 2012, while at Cornell University, Stephane Corgie, figured out a new way to immobilize enzymes without interfering with their natural properties and founded a company, Zymtronix, to develop the technology. This new biocatalyst process opens up new product development for many industries seeking sustainable, green solutions in their manufacturing processes.

Corgie quickly identified agriculture as an industry that could benefit from his process and brought in Marie Donnelly, a bioengineer, to lead the way. 

Zymtronix applied for funding in 2018. Based on Farm Viability’s application and scoring criteria, Donnelly thought her work should start with seed coatings to prevent damping off in cabbage seedlings and black rot in established crops. These diseases are significant, and current seed treatment options were limited to just a few fungicides and disease resistance had been building. Foliar applications of copper antimicrobials were also options but they both had limitations. The time was right to focus on a new approach.

The farmers on the vegetable review panel agreed and Donnelly’s proposal was one of their highest ranked projects. In year one, she worked to identify the right natural ingredient with an enzyme that could fight the damping off and black rot pathogens. She also developed a biopolymer blend to ensure the active ingredients would stay at the seed’s surface. Alan Taylor with Cornell was a key collaborator in the seed coating process, and several extension agents provided support in identifying growers for the trials.

Several growers participated in trials and all were happy with the ease of use in handling coated seeds.

The first threshold was to confirm that the seed treatment didn’t inhibit germination. The results were encouraging, with germination rates in the treated seeds comparable to the untreated. Further greenhouse testing was conducted to evaluate performance in heavily disease infested soil. In this trial, the treated seed germinated and grew whereas the untreated seeds succumbed to the disease. The results have been especially informative, as seeds germinated in a greenhouse for sale as transplants are the target market for many vegetables.

Donnelly says, “While there is still more work to be done, for an early stage trial we are very pleased with the progress. The product is being developed to be safe and biodegrade completely in the soil. We are confident we can market a product that both organic and conventional farmers will be happy to use.”

Corgie says, “This work has built the company’s agricultural credentials and allowed us to compete for start-up funds in many ag incubators in the US and Europe.”