Illustration credit: Natalie Marshall
Today, we announced a partnership with Bayer to create new chemistries that will help farmers keep their crops healthy. Specifically, we will focus on developing solutions to help them manage the world’s most common weeds.
Dual threats: resistance and climate change
Weeds have always posed challenges for growers, but their increasing resistance to herbicides adds complexity. Globally, more than 560 weed species have developed resistance to the top 15 herbicides. Climate change compounds this threat by opening up more regions to invasive weeds, threatening the resiliency of the food system.
This summer’s record-breaking natural disasters bring that reality into focus and make it all the more urgent to get new tools into growers’ hands. Severe droughts are threatening corn in Brazil, cocoa in the Ivory Coast and many crops in the American West, to name just a few regions. In California alone, a $50 billion agricultural industry–which supplies two thirds of the nation’s fruit and a third of its vegetables–is at risk.
When drought stresses crops, it weakens their defenses against pests like fungi, insects and nematodes. Those defenses weaken further if the plants have to compete with weeds for soil nutrients and the little water that’s available. As a result, crop yields can plummet.
For example, Palmer amaranth–known as the “king of weeds” due to its multi-herbicide resistance and aptitude for drought–has the potential to cause a 91% decrease in corn and 79% decrease in soybean yields. In drought conditions, Palmer amaranth produces seeds that are more drought tolerant. With the latest U.S. Drought Monitor reporting that 36% of corn, 95% of durum wheat and 98% of spring wheat are in areas experiencing drought, it’s crucial for farmers to have safe and effective protection against weeds.
Drought exacerbates the threats weeds pose to crops, but they cause problems for growers in all conditions and every part of the world. Traditional discovery and development methods, paired with a strict regulatory environment, make it challenging for companies to bring new solutions to market.
Through our work with Bayer, we will take a new approach to solving this problem.
Tapping into a vast chemical universe
There is an enormous universe of chemicals that can help growers tackle weeds safely and in new ways; those molecules are just waiting to be found.
Historically, the industry has searched for new herbicide candidates by identifying a promising molecule, testing it on different weeds, then moving into safety testing. Often, this means that companies might sink years of resources into the process only to discover a molecule is not safe.
Our work with Bayer will take an alternate, target-based approach that borrows from and builds upon pharma innovations. Using our toolkit of proven pharma technologies—DNA-encoded libraries, machine learning and structural biology—we can quickly assess more than 140 billion molecules based on specific target pest enzymes not found in people. In contrast, assessing that many molecules with standard phenotype screening would take 560,000 years, or about 70,000 years using high throughput screening.
Finding new molecules quickly is an important way to tackle herbicide resistance. By applying drug discovery approaches, we can identify unexpected molecules faster while building in safety guardrails from the start. We’ll move forward only with those that bind with the specific pest enzyme we’re targeting–like fitting a key into a lock–but don’t impact similar enzymes in other organisms.
Bayer is an ideal partner for this work. As a pharmaceutical and crop science company, it straddles the human health and plant health fields–and understands the synergies between both. Our joint R&D approach will leverage Enko’s toolkit of proven pharma technologies and Bayer’s decades of expertise in drug discovery and crop health to get effective, safer herbicides to farmers faster.