Designing the Keys to Unlock the Future of Sustainable Protection
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As climate change quickens, societal expectations increase and the threat of resistance grows, new crop protection solutions are imperative. Advances in the life sciences and data-driven technologies hold the key to expanding our pipeline and unlocking powerful new possibilities for agriculture.
Listen to farmers – no matter where they are in the world – protecting their crops until harvest from damaging insects, diseases, and weeds is often the toughest part of the job. And this job is getting tougher.
Pests are becoming resistant to the limited crop protection solutions available to farmers, climate change hinders their ability to produce enough to sustain their businesses and ensure the supply of affordable food, while agricultural policy and practices are being driven by consumer expectations towards the food we eat and the health of our planet.
This is not ‘just’ a complex combination of challenges facing farmers, it poses a growing and existential threat to humanity given that crop protection safeguards the equivalent of food for more than 2 billion people. There is therefore an urgent need for new, effective, safe and sustainable crop protection tools.
With our industry leading innovation platform, Bayer has been successful in launching 15 new active ingredients over the last 15 years. Yet essentially, we know that innovation in crop protection needs to undergo a fundamental transformation to ensure farmers can continue to respond quickly and safely to threats to their crops in the long-term.
We need to find a new way.
Our scientists are unlocking the future of sustainable protection using an approach we call CropKey.
Target Based Discovery – Searching for the unique lock
Crop Protection - like many medicines used to cure disease - works by finding and inhibiting a given protein in the target organism. By inhibiting this one protein, the pest itself can be inhibited. This protein can be thought of as a lock and to safeguard all surrounding biodiversity our scientists need to ensure that no other organism contains this very same lock.
With more scientific understanding than ever before about the makeup of living organisms and their complex biological processes in any given environment, using AI and machine learning – the subset of AI that involves using algorithms to find patterns in data – we can identify the complex interdependencies between a theoretically unlimited number of organisms, singling out unique proteins or “locks” far faster and with greater accuracy than ever before.
Profile Driven Discovery - Designing the perfect key
Until recently, molecules or “keys” from our leading 2.6 million compound library were physically screened and selected according to their potential efficacy as crop protection solutions. They were then tested to ensure their safety and sustainability profiles.
Today our scientists are able to design entirely new and precise “keys”. Using virtual screening we can increase the number of molecules analyzed exponentially. Computational predictive modelling and miniaturized testing - early in-vitro testing on individual cells – then confirms a molecule or “key” will not bind or “fit” to other proteins or “locks” in non-target organisms. Using these same predictive tools, scientists can also ensure other sustainability factors such as degradability of the molecule in the soil, going above and beyond current standards and minimizing all environmental impact.
These data-driven technologies narrow down those molecules with promise of efficacy and eliminate those that do not reach pre-defined safety and sustainability standards far faster and more accurately that previously imaginable. When the perfectly designed key fits the unique lock, our scientists have found a new mode of action.
But not only does this new paradigm in screening and modelling accelerate the discovery of new, effective, safe and sustainable modes of action, it opens whole new horizons as to what is possible; in the past it was laborious to curate, purchase and test thousands of molecules. Today, being able to analyze billions of molecules in a virtual environment using AI allows us to explore new and much larger chemical spaces that ever before.
Producing the Key – Digital Chemistry & AI driven synthesis
But it doesn’t stop there, computational tools are then being used to optimize the design of molecules and find synthesis routes, with AI making proposals as to the best way to create the molecule or – to keep with the analogy – to best produce the physical key. This “best way” includes factors such the environmental footprint or cost of synthesis, for example.
CropKey: Unlocking powerful new possibilities for agriculture
CropKey is Bayer’s bold demonstration as to how we will unlock the future of sustainable protection. Yet it is more than just an approach to innovation – it is producing tangible results which are expanding our pipeline of solutions.
We now have more than 30 potential new molecular targets under investigation in discovery and have validated more than 10 targets as new modes of action in early research, all arising from this breakthrough innovation approach. We have also announced two entirely new modes of action designed using the CropKey approach that are being brought from conception to reality in record time; a unique broad-spectrum fungicide for use in fruit and vegetables and a new herbicide molecule for broadacre post-emergent weed control are expected to reach the market in the next decade.
CropKey designed solutions hold huge potential, but they become even more powerful when combined with a diverse set of tools. Developed to be used together with Bayer’s advanced seed and trait technologies and biological products as part of integrated pest management strategies and applied according to data-driven field insights and with precision technologies, they will meet each farmer’s specific needs and circumstances.
Crop protection is also a key component of agricultural systems based on regenerative agricultural practices such as using no- or reduced-till or cover crops to maximize the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere, increasing the soil’s natural ability to store this carbon, nutrients and water for improved crop performance.
This systems and tailored solutions approach can increase farmer productivity, further minimize the environmental impact of agriculture using CropKey designed solutions that act and are applied in a highly targeted and precise way, while renewing natural ecosystems.
And as our AI tools that design, develop and deliver new crop protection solutions learn alongside us, every generation of solutions will be smarter than the ones that came before, providing farmers with new keys to grow their crops successfully and sustainably.