Grain, vegetable and fruit plants don’t have it easy: weeds compete with them for nutrients, light and space, greedy insects bite and suck at their organs, and fungal diseases destroy leaves and stems. In order to protect the world’s crops, researchers from Bayer develop innovative crop protection products – tailored solutions to safeguard the world’s harvests. They are an important component in the production of high-quality, affordable foodstuffs and make it possible for people in our interconnected world to enjoy almost any food at any time of the year. But even in poorer regions of the world, people benefit from the advantages of crop protection products which also in these regions safeguard harvests for millions and help spare them from poverty.
However, researchers from Bayer are faced with a difficult mission. On the one hand, the new products must effectively target harmful organisms. On the other hand, they need to be safe for humans and the environment. Chemists and biologists are therefore continually at work developing effective mechanisms which meet high human and environmental safety standards. “A lot of time passes before a new product is ready for commercialization,” says Adrian Percy, Head of Research and Development at Bayer’s agricultural business division Crop Science. It takes up to ten years to go from the initial laboratory tests through field testing and all the way to approval by authorities. The cost for the development of a new product runs to about €200 million euros. After all, the researchers have to analyze thousands of substances. On average, however, only one out of more than 100,000 compounds tested becomes a finished product. “In the chemistry lab, we first synthesize thousands of new molecules,” explains Percy. In order to make the search for innovative active substances more efficient, Bayer has set up a new technology platform. It combines new biochemical testing systems, high throughput processes and scientific computing tools. This makes it possible to check even tiny amounts of substances for effectiveness in fully automated micro-screenings. And, thanks to miniaturized greenhouse testing processes, several hundred thousand substances can be tested every year. The researchers then only need to take a closer look at the most promising compounds. “The exciting thing is to see whether our ideas hold up under biological testing in the greenhouse,” says Percy. “If the effect is not as we expect it to be, we have to continue optimizing the molecules and look at what we can change in order to achieve the desired properties.”
On average only one out of more than 100,000 compounds tested becomes a finished product.
For this, the researchers at Bayer have access to an extensive library of substances. “Here we store about 2.5 million historical as well as current research compounds,” explains Mark Drewes, Head of Research Logistics at Crop Science. He and his colleagues take care of the enormous collection of molecules at the Crop Science headquarters in Monheim am Rhein, Germany. At the push of a button, samples are stored, fetched and distributed in a rapid and reliable way to meet the needs of the biological research institutes in Monheim, Frankfurt am Main, Germany and Lyon, France.
Once the researchers have found a good lead compound, the process becomes a real testing marathon. For a potential insecticide, for example, they check the new compound’s effects on a particular insect’s metabolism. However, crop protection solutions don’t just need to work optimally; they also need to be safe for users and consumers. To this end, the researchers use highly sensitive equipment to analyze the treated plants for possible substance residues.
In addition to finding effective strategies against hungry insects, scientists also determine how the molecules break down within the protected plants. Because by the time the foodstuffs find their way to consumers’ tables, the residues need to have disappeared.
From Idea to Market Maturity
The researchers also have to check their new substances’ influence on organisms that are not being targeted. “As ecotoxicologists, we investigate side-effects of new active substances, their degradation products and the final crop protection products in the environment,” says Juergen Keppler, Head of Ecotoxicology at Crop Science. He and his team examine non-target organisms like algae, water fleas, earthworms, mites, and pollinators such as bees. The organisms are selected to represent communities living in various habitats like water, sediment, and soil. “To assess potential risks, we test the effects of compounds on different scales – from laboratory studies under worldwide aligned and standardized conditions to field studies reflecting the later use of the plant protection products,” says Keppler.
A Testing Marathon for Safety
Also in efficacy trials, research is conducted under realistic field conditions of a natural ecosystem, because each new active substance must also be tested to see whether its promise pans out in the real world. And the standards are especially high at Bayer, where it is hoped that farmers around the world will value the products in the future. Therefore, new substances are tested under a wide range of conditions right from the start, in both northern and southern hemispheres, on various soils, and under a variety of climatic conditions. However, once the researchers have finally got their new active substance through the chemical and biological tests, it isn’t over yet: the formula for the crop protection product won’t work without the right mix of auxiliary substances. “Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worthless,” says Rolf Pontzen, Head of the Formulating Technology Lab at Crop Science. “The formulation ensures that a substance is optimally transported – from the aqueous spray solution to the target site within the plant.” And only with the right formulation can small amounts of active substance be evenly distributed across a large area. In addition to regional differences, researchers must also take into account factors such as whether a spray solution is applied by airplane or from the ground. And just like with medication, the optimal form of administration for a pesticide is also important: should it be placed on the market as a granule, a liquid or a seed-treatment product?
“Crop protection products are among the best-tested chemicals in the world,” says Percy. He adds that computer simulations, residue tests and comprehensive toxicological and ecotoxicological tests help ensure that new products meet the highest safety standards, and only then are they placed on the market. Crop protection is indispensable for modern agriculture and necessary if high-quality, healthy and affordable food is to continue making its way to supermarket shelves and market stands the world over.