Damian Curtis PhD, Director of Synthetic Biology and Genomics, BioConsortia, and Holly Meadows-Smith, Marketing Associate at BioConsortia, explain the need for biologicals companies to work with the chemicals industry to develop compatible, synergistic solutions.
Estimated at over a $3 billion in 2016, by 2022 the biopesticide market is projected to reach $8.8 billion. Biostimulants are also growing in acceptance, with a CAGR of over 10% through the same timeframe. Growth in the biologicals market has been driven, at least in part, by consumer apprehensions toward the agrochemicals industry. The resulting focus-shift toward sustainability and environmental consciousness has been transforming agriculture for many years. Added to the fact that effective natural solutions may also provide a solution to chemical resistance issues, even the biggest players have incorporated natural, sustainable products into their product portfolios.
Within the agricultural bioscience investment arena, biologics are prioritized over new chemicals, genetics, and seeds. Inside the industry itself, almost all major agrochemicals companies have a hand in the biologics game, either through their own research spend or by procuring smaller biological companies. Major acquisitions and partnerships for biological companies include Bayer-AgraQuest, Monsanto-Novozymes, BASF-Becker Underwood, DuPont-Taxon, Syngenta-Pasteuria, FMC-Chr Hansen, and Koch-Mendel-Pathway. These alliances alone make for over $2 billion worth of direct investment into biological research programs. Successful SME players include AgBiome, Koppert, Marrone Bioinnovations, and hundreds more. The biostimulant space (with solutions that range from plant growth promotion to improved fertilizer use efficiency to abiotic stress tolerance) is less saturated, although growing in size, and is made up of companies such as Agrinos, BioConsortia, Indigo, Verdesian, and Valagro. Many of these companies work in both areas.
Technological advancement is one contributor to the growing success of biologicals, enhancing both the breadth and scope of research programs through lowered cost and superior methodologies. Techniques like microbiome analysis have become common place in many research programs, and big data and machine learning have become buzzwords throughout the biological space. Companies like BioConsortia use ‘big’ microbiome data to help identify teams of microbes in superior performing plants, while Trace Genomics diagnose mutations and discover organisms based on genetic data that support the development of yield-relevant solutions.
Much technical progress can be attributed to industrial and pharmaceutical biotechnology. Some of these transferable advances include characterization of microbial and natural product chemistry libraries, efficient metabolite screening, and physical assets for scaling-up and producing large volumes of fermentation-based solutions.
CRISPR-Cas9, a ‘new’ gene-editing tool, has recently stepped into the agricultural limelight. CRISPR allows for gene activation, as well as natural gene addition/deletion, through precise mutation of existing DNA. Recently, Monsanto announced their license of the CRISPR-Cpf1 system, which offers even more flexibility to use the methodology across different crops and genes. The editing tool has already been incorporated into agricultural research.
Genetically modified crops continue to be developed and launched in critical agricultural regions of the world despite ongoing challenges in the European Union, and elsewhere, and gene editing tools have become routine for many crops and new tools are continually being developed to allow for modification of other agricultural crops. Interestingly, companies developing Biological Ag products have been slow to embrace the gene editing tools and methods which permeate the microbial biotechnology and academic world and have for many years. Gene editing tools used daily by Amyris, Ginkgo Bioworks, Conagen and Zymergen, to name a few, are largely shunned by most Biological research and development companies. This handicaps the capabilities and options for scientists working to develop new products for development companies. This handicaps the capabilities and options for scientists working to develop new products for farmers. The gene editing advancements being used to modify microbes to increase enzyme production, create new chemicals, and lower the cost of production for vital industrial inputs, biofuels, and commodity chemicals can also be used to improve the performance, lower costs of production, and expand opportunities for Biologicals. A few companies, BioConsortia, Pivot Bio and JoynBio, for example, are embracing these methods and working towards a gene edited Biological products which will combine the attributes of Biologicals which farmers love; multiple modes of action, the ability to apply the product right up to harvest, etc, with enhanced performance and lower costs. There will certainly be regulatory and societal acceptance hurdles for the Biologicals and there could be new exciting and effective options for farmers to use at a time when chemicals are under immense pressure.
The biologics industry still faces many challenges that inhibit actual competition with the well-established and dominant agrochemical world. These challenges largely relate to the expectations of growers who may be used to the instant mortality of pests following the application of a synthetic pesticide, for example. In contrast, a microbial seed treatment for the same solution may have no effect on the pest but could induce a response in the plant that allows it to protect itself against the attack. Another challenge for natural solutions is consistency of efficacy. Historically, microbial solutions have been considered efficacious if they show yield effects 50% of the time. This is improving, of course, and will continue to do so as researchers better understand the mechanisms of biological effects. Formulation developments specific to microbial treatments will also ensure that biological products are delivered in an optimized form.
Nevertheless, most experts agree that the best strategy for biologicals is to work side-by-side with synthetic solutions. A natural treatment that can provide growth benefits under a reduced chemical fertilizer program, or a biological that brings benefit on top of a GM trait, are both viable routes to market and potentially more acceptable from a grower’s perspective.
On a practical level, a biological treatment is not likely to be applied commercially to a bare seed. Chemical seed treatments are so widely used that compatibility with harsh treatments should be considered at the initiation of biological research programs. For example, BioConsortia uses chemically treated seed throughout the discovery process in order to select for microbes that can survive in these conditions. Poncho/VOTiVO combines natural and chemical solutions and the BioAg Alliance’s new Acceleron B-300 SAT does the same.
Biologicals have great potential to improve crop survival, growth, and yield while limiting negative impacts on the environment. By working within the current system and together with current solutions, biologicals have the potential to deliver the greatest success.
Dr. Damian Curtis & Holly Meadows-Smith