Saving the World, From Their Retirement

While their peers were enjoying their golden years, a group of retired Hebrew University researchers invented a compound that could help solve the world hunger crisis.

Hebrew University may be about to reap unprecedented benefits from its policy – common to all Israeli universities – of giving retiring researchers access to office space and grants. Wonderfully, the payoff will be largely in actual bushels of wheat.

Professors emeritus Akiva Appelbaum, 72; Eliezer Goldschmidt, 73; Raphael Goren, 80; Moshe Huberman, 71; and Joseph Riov, 73, should be on a beach somewhere enjoying their retirements. Instead, they recently created a chemical solution that boosts the yields of wheat crops by about 20 percent and extends the shelf life of fruits and flowers.

Hebrew University's research development company, Yissum – which owns the patents for technology that makes products worth $2 billion in sales a year – sold the rights to the latest research in deal that is expected to earn it tens of millions of dollars.

Rohm and Hass, a subsidiary of the giant American chemical company Dow Chemicals, bought the patents for 20 years. Floralife, an international flower preparation company, is in the process of finalizing a deal. Both companies plan to market and distribute new products based on the research.

Yissum is expected to make $50 million from the deal with Rohm and Hass and $5 50 $10 million a year from the deal with Floralife.

"Rafi Goren and the other project researchers have such belief in the potential of the research that they continue to work on the project even though they receive no compensation for their efforts," said Yissum's CEO Yaacov Michlin. "Goren came by with the plants – those that had been treated with the substance and those that hadn't – and it was very easy to spot the difference. It was an interesting situation. He said, 'I'm a pensioner, and I need a budget to synthesize enough of the experimental substance to conduct field tests."

Goren's pitch worked, and Yissum gave him a $60,000 loan to continue development work and field tests.It was this work that lead to the groundbreaking new research.

None of this would have been possible if Hebrew University had not supported its retired professors, all members of the faculty of agriculture, with a combined 200 years of experience – much of it in ethanol research.

"The phenomenon of researchers producing new accomplishments after they reach pension-age is known and a blessing," said Goldschmidt. "But a staff comprised of senior researchers with this level of cooperation, shared management of research budgets and the like is very rare, indeed. Every one of us brings his own specialty to the table. Yossi excels in chemistry, Akiva has experience in dealing with fruit after it has been harvested and Moshe is good at conducting lab and field tests. On one hand, room needs to be given to fresh blood in the field. On the other hand, it would be a shame to waste so much proven talent and experience."

Increasing crop yieldis one of the main goals of agricultural research today. It is important both as an answer to the world's looming food crisis and a way to increase farmers' profits. For a farmer, a fruit that ripens before it gets to table or a cut flower that wilts before it reaches a vase means wasted time and money.

Inclement environmental conditions, drought, hail, floods and cold, as well as faulty irrigation techniques, catalyze the production of the hormone ethylene, which ages fruit and flowers. So a harsh or dry winter will lead to the more rapid ripening of fruit, lowered crop yields and less florid flowers.

"The global economic losses due to the effects of ethylene are estimated to reach tens of billions of dollars annually," said Appelbaum. "Fruits and vegetables die, flowers wilt at a much faster rate and other type of produce – leafy vegetables like lettuce and celery – lose their value in transit from the farmer to the consumer. With certain fruits – for example, Mandarin oranges – increased levels of ethylene will even cause trees to shed fruit before it is ripe."

At this point, a retarding agent is used to slow down the production of ethylene. But this agent – which is mainly produced in gas form by dissolving a powder in water – is made for use in closed spaces. It is much less effective in open fields.

The patent for the gas, which is set to expire soon, belongs to Dow Chemicals. The company invested in the more sophisticated compound created by Goren and his research associates to protect its revenues.

The new compound is a synthesis of a salt compound which also slows the production of ethylene. Its main advantage over the gas is that it can be sprayed in open areas, like fields or greenhouses, or poured into a vase to extend the life of flowers. For use with flowers, it could be packaged and sold in small pouches.

Since the new compound is a derivative of the gas – which has already been approved for agricultural use by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration – government approval should not take too long.

The new compound is forecasted to reach the market in four to six years. Annual sales for the gas are estimated at $100 million, and it is reasonable to assume that the new compound will be even more lucrative.

Forty percent of the royalties that Yissum earns from the new compound will go to the veteran professors who created it. Another 20 percent will be set aside for the researchers who take over its research and development.

Huberman, the scientists largely responsible for conducting lab and field tests of the new compound, points to pictures of flowers and stalks of wheat treated with the new compound. The difference is dramatic. Untreated flowers wilted, while those that had been treated with the new compound remained vibrant and beautiful.

Flowers are an expensive product, explains Riov. So even if the new compound ends up being relatively expensive, it will still be cost-effective for horticulturalists to invest in it.

But the compound's biggest impact is likely to be in treating wheat. Undesirable ethylene production can be stimulated by something as minor as wheat stalks swaying in a heavy wind. By slowing wheat's ethylene production, the new compound will allow it to continue producing energy through photosynthesis for longer. This will boost the number of food calories produced by every plant and increase the weight of the wheat grain that is produced by between 15 and 28 percent.

The researchers tested the compound on different genetically modified wheat strains, which will add further bulk to the potential crop yield. This modified super-wheat does not need to be watered and, consequently, is well-suited to stand up to harsh weather conditions, including drought. The most dramatic test results came from wheat subjected to stressful weather conditions like drought.

Goren says a politician who represents an international non-profit organization in Israel told him, "With this I can solve half of the famine problem in Africa."

A growing field

Goren first got the idea for the research way back in 1982. As a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, he worked with Edward Sisler, one of the researchers who developed the gas compound for ethylene retardation.

Over the next 30 years, the team slowly grew to its current size and make-up. It was then that it really began to bear fruit.

In the past, Goren's research focused on large-scale citrus cultivationand the role of different plant hormones in controlling flowering, output and the quality of fruit.

Before retiring in 2000, he served as the dean of the agriculture faculty and established the Magid Institute for Continuing and Adult Education at the university. Two weeks ago, he received the Kaye Prize for innovative developments from American Friends of Hebrew University. The non-profit organization, which exists to support the university, gives the award to faculty and students in recognition of the year's most commercially promising research.

Goldschmidt conducted his own research of citrus plants. He focused on growth compounds and the aging and destruction of chlorophyll, straddling the line between theoretical research and practical implementation.

Riov researched the practical applications of plant hormones, with a focus on ethylene. He is is considered one of the leading researchers in the field of forestry and is deeply involved in Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund projects aimed at making Israel more verdant.

Appelbaum's past research focused on storing fruits and vegetables, particularly through the manipulation of ethylene. Towards the end of the 1990s, he joined Goren's research team to work on various projects related to the ripening and aging of agricultural produce.

Huberman spent the majority of his career working with Goren to plan and execute lab and field tests.

When the team members are together, they exude the dynamic of old friends and colleagues – even while disagreeing.

Goren said he can already "envision the crop dusters spraying the fields with the new compound." Whereas, Riov cautiously states, "Commercial implementation will require the development of a cost-effective compound formula.  It is possible that for certain crops the compound will not be very cost effective if its production price is too high."

When the team members asked if they have started counting their fortunes yet, they erupt in laughter.

"I will answer in a biological fashion," said Goldschmidt. "Without longevity we won't see the economic success of the product."

Yissum requires the companies it contracts with to pay a relatively small amount upfront, with the big payout coming only after the research is commercialized. This stage is years away, and in the meantime the patent rights will have to be protected in 27 different countries, and expensive and complicated process.

Michlin says agricultural research has become increasingly commercially important as the industry has become more technologically advanced.

"If agricultural discoveries comprise 15 percent of Yissum's total revenues today, they have the potential to reach 30 percent in the future," Michlin said. "Agriculture's potential is as big as biotech's and requires less investment."

Still, he points out, there are very few organizations in Israel that support agricultural research. When Goren sought an Israeli company to invest in his research, he found no takers. Without the help of Yissum's fund, which is dedicated to moving research beyond its initial stages, the researchers would never have made it to the field trials.

"We are seeing more interest in investing in agriculture even among companies that have nothing to do with the field," said Michal Levy, an agri-tech business development executive."IBM recently set up an investment fund for the agricultural field. The global need for nutrition is clear, and companies – possibly even out of humanitarian considerations – believe that this is the time and place to invest."

How much the new compound will contribute to solving the world food crisis may depend on how it is priced. If it is expensive, it may not get much use in developing countries.

Yoram Kapulnik, who heads up an Israeli committee dedicated to addressing the world food crisis, announced by Agriculture Minister Orit Noked in May, says the world hunger will likely be solved with more radical approaches, such as genetic engineering.

But a 20 percent increase in the yield of wheat crops nothing to scoff. And the way it was achieved proves the biblical saying, "Do not toss me into old age."

Reuters
Ofer Vaknin