Pesticide evolution: Can natural chemicals help battle insects, weeds and disease without harming the planet?

Credit: JComp

A new collaboration between the two R&D pioneers aims to accelerate the discovery of breakthrough crop protection technologies.

If you ask two farmers what it really takes to bring healthy and affordable food to market, you’ll probably get four or five different answers. The reason: there are a thousand local variations in soil, weather, and farming practices, just as there are a thousand natural forces working against a crop at any given time. Insects, weeds, and diseases evolve relentlessly to overcome whatever farmers throw at them.

But can nature’s evolutionary bounty be harvested for solutions to these challenges, too?

Zymergen, a biomanufacturing company at the forefront of synthetic biology, thinks so. Recently, it announced a new partnership with agricultural sciences company FMC Corporation to develop new crop protection solutions to growers around the world. In combining the two companies’ formidable discovery and development capabilities, the partners aim to build the world’s best and fastest pipeline for bringing new natural products to growers.

“Growers have to be pretty savvy in order to use the right solution for their problem,” says Kathleen Shelton, FMC’s Chief Technology Officer and Vice President Research & Development. FMC makes local solutions to local problems so farmers can make the most profitable use of their land, she says.

The secret sauce: metagenomics

FMC understands what farmers need to protect their crops, and a key feature of the partnership involves searching Zymergen’s vast molecular library—the largest metagenomic database in the world—to find natural products to do that.

Zach Serber, CSO and Co-founder of Zymergen. Credit: Zymergen

“Our library is incredibly rich in that it captures the solutions that nature has already evolved to create,” says Zach Serber, Zymergen’s co-founder and Chief Science Officer. Historically, the challenge has been figuring out what these molecules have evolved to do. Zymergen has developed computational methods for predicting with high accuracy their likely utility, which includes protecting crops from pests. Serber says that predictive ability is going to cause a revolution in agriculture and beyond.

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FMC will provide criteria that reflect growers’ most important needs for novel modes of action to manage resistance. These selection criteria will inform Zymergen’s computational models and, in turn, speed discovery of higher-performing crop protection solutions based on nature. FMC can screen about 65,000 molecules a year in the lab. The most promising candidates graduate to small-scale testing with actual pests and actual weeds, before going all the way to greenhouse and field testing.

Our strange relationship with pesticides

I’ve written previously how pesticides tend to receive little else but bad press, even though they are vital to human health, nutrition, and global food security. Simply put, we cannot live without them. Nonetheless, consumer sentiment and increasing regulatory scrutiny have created opportunities to use technology in driving sustainability.

“Consumer expectations are evolving at an ever-more rapid pace,” Serber says. “The reason that FMC and Zymergen are so aligned is because we are both committed to innovation at that pace.”

Shelton says that, no matter what, nature will find a way to have some subset of pests become resistant to farmers’ efforts. For that reason, she says there’s always going to be a need to develop new and better products. “At the same time, society is continually challenging us to find better molecules that will have less environmental impact while also working effectively. That’s why we’re so excited to be working with Zymergen.”

Related article:  Genetically modified mosquitoes are a small price to pay for malaria eradication

Zymergen’s agriculture roots

Founded in 2013, Zymergen has had agricultural collaborations almost from the start. This is the first time it has gone public with one. “This [partnership] is so interesting and so substantive, so in line with our ethos and where we think our technology ought to play,” Serber says.

Kathleen Shelton, FMC’s Chief Technology Officer and Vice President Research & Development. Credit: Kathleen Shelton

“With a technology like ours,” he continued, “one of the things we need to figure out is how to bring that technology to bear on real-world problems. The fastest route to doing so is in partnership with a like-minded company like FMC, that embraces innovation and creativity as a source of not only economic growth but also of solving old problems in new better ways.”

Beyond crop protection, Zymergen is also pursuing how to make plants more drought resistant, enable them to capture more nutrients, and give them a longer shelf life. Zymergen is even working on a next-generation animal feed that increases nutrition while decreasing the need for antibiotics.

FMC: The biggest company you never heard of

FMC makes the most popular insecticide in the world and is the fifth largest crop protector by revenue. It’s the fastest growing agriculture company for the past several quarters, with a broad product portfolio and a healthy pipeline of products.

Unlike other agriculture leaders like Corteva or Syngenta, FMC doesn’t sell seeds but instead is entirely focused on crop protection. Shelton says this makes it very simple for FMC to know growers’ needs, their practices, and the challenges to control pests.

FMC boasts an R&D team of more than 800 scientists and one of the most robust discovery and development pipelines in the agricultural industry. Notably, FMC is about to launch the industry’s first novel herbicide mode of action in over 30 years. That product, tetflupryolimet, will first be launched in a rice herbicide in the Pacific region, giving growers a brand new tool to again address resistant grasses and some broadleaf weeds.

But neither FMC nor Zymergen want to wait another 30 years for the next big innovation in crop protection.

A glimpse of the future of agriculture

Shelton believes a lot of emerging technologies will play out in agriculture. “I get a lot of emails about IoT and sensors, and these technologies are going to change the way that farmers understand what is happening in their field,” she says.

Shelton also believes technology will enable much more specific application of pesticides. For example, being able to detect pests at very low levels will enable growers to control them with less pesticides, giving growers more control over their fields.

But as we go forward, Shelton says, what people really want to know is not simply if crop protection is safe or not, but whether these molecules are applied minimally and have the most specific, limited impact necessary to get the job done. “What we’re doing with Zymergen gives us a whole other world to explore,” she says.

During our interview, Shelton and Serber express a lot of professional admiration of each other’s organizations. Both of them seem to share the same passion for technology, desire to solve societal problems, and an impatience to make change happen now.

“Working with FMC is a dream come true,” says Serber. “FMC are proven leaders and innovators in this industry. Together we can solve old problems in new and better ways.”

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. SynBioBeta can be found on Twitter @SynBioBeta. Follow John on Twitter @johncumbers

A version of this article was originally published at Forbes and has been republished here with permission. 

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