With a concentrated expression, Stephanie Bellmaine is at work in one of the laboratories at Bayer’s facilities in Frankfurt-Höchst, Germany. Behind large safety glasses, Bellmaine’s gaze remains steady as she evaporates a liquid to extract its powdered version needed for her next experiment. This procedure, which seems trivial at first sight, can have a powerful outcome: It could lead to finding new weed control strategies that will help farmers protect their crops. Such strategies are urgently needed in a world with up to 10 billion people who must be fed in the near future.
A Cross-Continental Collaboration
Herbicide Innovation Partnership
Bellmaine is one of eleven postdoctoral researchers from Australia and New Zealand who have come to Frankfurt am Main, Germany for two years. Their postdoctoral program is part of an AUD 45 million-funded, five-year Herbicide Innovation Partnership agreement between Bayer and the Australian Grains and Research Development Corporation. The program gives postdoctoral researchers the opportunity to boost their research skills required to identify and explore advanced technologies for herbicide innovation and develop solutions to herbicide resistance in weeds. Bellmaine’s research focuses on herbicide chemistry: “Herbicides help to combat weeds that grow in farmers’ fields. But in some cases, a herbicide affects the crop plant as well as the weed. I want to find a molecule that helps the crop plant survive, so that only the weed is damaged,” explains Bellmaine, who recently finished her PhD at Australia’s Melbourne University. Overall, Bellmaine intends to create a product that will aid farmers: “If they can apply herbicides without any side effects on their crops, their plants will grow better – resulting in higher returns.”
I want to find a molecule that helps the crop plant survive, so that only the weed is damaged.
A New Mode of Action
Another postdoctoral researcher now in Frankfurt is Bruno Bašić, most recently from Australia’s Curtin University, as well as holding a PhD from Queensland University of Technology. Standing in his research lab in Frankfurt, he describes his postdoctoral mission this way: “Since the world population is growing rapidly, we have to increase crop yields. Currently, the best way to do that is to make sure that weeds do not compete with crops – so we need herbicides. Though, in the long term, infinite growth in food and feed production is not possible.” Bašić is working on a new mode of action that will delay the development of herbicide resistance. This kind of research is crucial: To date, almost 250 different weed species have evolved resistance to common herbicides, thereby reducing weed control and consequently significantly reducing crop yields. In this regard, he acknowledges Bayer’s efforts against weed resistance and its comprehensive experience in crop protection: “It is great to be part of this now.”
The best way to increase crop yields is to make sure that weeds do not compete with crops.
A New Mode of Action
Stephanie Bellmaine also feels like she benefits from the overall scientific atmosphere in Germany: “I like the strong, pro-scientific, innovative feeling here,” she states. “In contrast, industrial agriculture chemistry research in Australia does not have the same scale, because we are a very young country representing only a small share of global agriculture production. This is one of the main reasons to have partnerships like the Herbicide Innovation Partnership. Here in Germany, we benefit every day from the equipment and herbicide knowledge that has been developed over decades at the Frankfurt laboratories. Every day, we learn something new that takes us a step closer in finding new herbicide solutions.”
Team Spirit Inside the Laboratories
Both postdoctoral researchers believe that their goals can only be achieved through good teamwork. In this way, they have already had positive experiences with their German colleagues in Frankfurt. “Nothing happens in a vacuum,” says Bašić. “Between our faculties, there is a constant conversation back and forth. It’s like a ‘brain map’. One thought leads to another. And these ideas branch out.” Bellmaine agrees with this assessment. She also thinks the well-organized working structure and team spirit at the Frankfurt’s laboratories is crucial for their success: “We have a lot of meetings where we exchange our thoughts. Ultimately, everyone is working towards the same goal – the central goal of the partnership – which is to develop a new product to help farmers. It doesn’t matter if you are working in a different team, lab or project. Everyone is willing to give input.”
Though these postdoctoral researchers enjoy their profession very much, they also have to cope with one big challenge: “As a scientist, you deal with failures most of the time. You live for the five percent of the time when you are succeeding,” says Bašić. “But in the other 95 percent, the experiments don’t work out, and we have to try something else.”
New Skills, More Knowledge
Nevertheless, the experience gained during this research time in Frankfurt will be beneficial. Bruno Bašić hopes to apply the knowledge and skills he gains for his future work in Australia: “Part of this partnership project is funded by Australian farmers. They invest their private money, so that we can research herbicides targeted for Australian crops. Australian farmers hope that we bring this experience back, and I hope to do so.”
For her part, Stephanie Bellmaine could imagine staying in Germany for good. In fact, she also has a special affinity to Germany: “I also have a BA in German. It is my second language, and I always wanted to come here after graduation. I really enjoy the culture, the language and the people,” she says. “It was a stroke of luck that this position was available right after I finished my studies,” she continues. Bellmaine hopes to find a science-related job in which she can benefit humanity: “I want to do something that is beneficial and useful to create science for a better life.”
Herbicide Innovation Partnership
Under a five-year Herbicide Innovation Partnership agreement, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and Bayer have joined forces for the discovery and development of innovative weed management solutions. The partnership’s major goal is to provide growers with new technologies to break herbicide resistance and support the sustainability of modern crop production systems.
“Weeds cost Australian growers about AUD 3.25 billion per year. Growers have told us that managing resistant weeds is the biggest problem they face. This partnership will put Australian farmers at the forefront of tackling herbicide resistance,” states Richard Clark, Chairman at the GRDC. Part of the AUD 45 million-funded, five-year partnership agreement is a program that trains postdoctoral researchers from Australia and New Zealand in advanced industrial research techniques. At the beginning of 2016, the first postdoctoral scientists started working on promising research projects in chemistry, biochemistry and biology at Bayer’s laboratories in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
Weeds cost Australian growers about AUD 3.25 billion per year.