Observing, understanding and improving on nature
Years of work go into developing a new crop protection product. It takes more than 10 years to move from the original idea to the market. In many cases, researchers draw inspiration from nature. Careful observation of living things has often led to innovative methods for protecting plants.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
- Sometimes nature itself provides the best plant protection products.
- By observing nature, researchers keep coming up with innovative ideas for plant protection.
- The Crimson bottlebrush plants (Callistemon citrinus), for example, provided the template for an effective remedy against weeds.
Plant protection products should act on specific targets, if possible affecting only certain pests and diseases. Agricultural crops must not be harmed, and the use of these products must be safe for both humans and the environment. This places enormous demands on industrial scientists. Researching new products and methods for protecting plants is very time-consuming and expensive. It takes 12 years, on average, for a new active ingredient to be approved for the market. Development costs exceed 280 million USD.
Observing natural products and processes is an important source of inspiration for scientists. The recognition that certain plants and living things do not thrive when in close proximity has led to the development of numerous crop protection products. In 1977, the Californian chemist Reed Gray discovered something interesting in his garden. He noticed that almost no weeds were growing underneath his crimson bottlebrush plants (Callistemon citrinus), a phenomenon that could not be explained simply by the fact that the area underneath was in the shade.
Gray took soil samples and examined them in his laboratory. It turned out that bottlebrush plants produce a substance that inhibits the growth of other plants. Chemical analyses identified this substance as leptospermone; this blocks the production of carotenoids, which provide protection against UV light, in other plants. In the absence of carotenoids, plants are bleached by the sunlight and die. A new means of controlling weeds had been discovered.
But there was a catch. Extremely large quantities of leptospermone are needed to protect plants – up to 9 kilograms per hectare. Producing and marketing the necessary amounts of this substance would require the cultivation of huge fields of bottlebrush. Instead, scientists took inspiration from the chemical structure of leptospermone, then worked tirelessly to synthesize similar compounds displaying the desired characteristics. Eleven years after Reed Gray first isolated leptospermone, researchers at Syngenta were able to synthesize the active ingredient mesotrione, which has a similar structure. It was between 50 and 100 times as effective as leptospermone, and could be used safely. This crop protection product, inspired by the Callistemon citrinus plant, was introduced to the U.S. and European markets in 2001, and has been continually improved since that time.
The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) recognizes the significant opportunities offered by new breeding methods. In a new dossier, the Academy presents five examples of crops cultivated using genome editing, which have high potential for Swiss agriculture. This publication emphasizes the scientific consensus on the use of genetic scissors. The new breeding methods offer numerous advantages for the environment and agriculture.
Modern crop protection products must be safe, targeted and short-lived – i.e. degraded shortly after reaching their target – without leaving behind biologically active degradation products.
Bioengineered crops have been cultivated in many parts of the world for around 25 years. Several publications bear witness to the great benefits of biotechnology in agriculture. The cultivation of the plants has a positive effect on the environment, the climate and yields for farmers.
Heat waves are posing a major challenge to cultivation around the world. Water shortages and droughts are resulting in heavy crop losses for the agricultural industry. Because droughts will be more frequent in the future, the search for plant varieties that consume less water is a top priority. One drought-tolerant wheat variety from Argentina is showing great potential.