By Laura Temple
Agricultural biologicals – inputs derived from natural materials – represent one of the fastest-growing segments of ag technology. Countless companies, from start-ups to biologicals divisions of ag chem giants, tout natural products that enhance crop growth, fight pests, improve soil health, boost plant nutrient uptake and more. And interest remains high.
“Biologicals tend to be low in toxicity and generally ‘soft’ when it comes to environmental impact,” writes Steve Savage, Ph.D., food and agriculture consultant, in his Applied Mythology blog. “They have been a rapidly growing segment of the crop protection market for some time, expanding their sales at a compound annual growth rate of around 17 percent, but biologicals still represent only around five percent of the global market for crop inputs.”
Development timelines tend to be shorter for biologicals than for synthetic chemicals, and development costs are much lower, Savage adds. “These lower barriers to entry have encouraged nearly 500 companies to participate in that five percent of the market.”
An array of technologies in the category creates endless possibilities to use properties of bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, plants and more to support crop health, mitigate environmental stress and control pests. The potential and number of products on the market can overwhelm producers.
“Innovation is making biologicals easier to discover, more targeted, safer and more effective than ever before,” says Sarah Hovinga, Biologics Research and Development for Bayer US. “The potential in these tiny microorganisms is really endless.”
And the possibilities and potential also can overwhelm the researchers and developers tasked with discovering new products and bringing them to market.
“In our culture collection, we have more than 100,000 different strains of microbials frozen away,” Hovinga says. “We identify them, figure out ways they may work, test them and over time we can improve how they actually function.”
So how do companies decide where and how to invest in biologicals?
How do they select products to join this crowded marketplace?
The answers are as diverse as the companies. A snapshot of one group demonstrates how technology and agronomics support biologicals development. It also provides a framework for producers to ask questions, identify priorities and determine how biologicals fit their operations.
Case Study: Cytozyme
Cytozyme believes biologicals are a sustainable solution to improve production agriculture, and that mindset serves as an initial filter to identify opportunities and direct investments in research, technology and product development.
“Only about 25 percent of genetic yield potential is expressed in most crops,” says Jeff Morgan, marketing manager for Cytozyme. “Stress – even undetectable stress – impacts yield and quality. We have found agriculture’s ecosystems are very inefficient compared to natural biological systems, so we look at how to take advantage of natural systems within production agriculture.”
Cytozyme looks at stress, growth and development on cellular and molecular levels.
“Our approach to product research and development is based on our comprehensive understanding of physiological processes,” says Elizabeth Wozniak, Ph.D., managing director of research and development for Cytozyme. “To sustainably boost natural processes, we focus on understanding and improving stress responses.”
Wozniak explains that stress produces common physiological responses in cells. Natural responses manage those stresses.
“All stress causes over-production of reactive oxygen species, or ROS, in cell structures,” she says. “Excess ROS damages cell membranes, proteins and DNA transcription.”
In plants, damage from stress like temperature, disease or water availability impacts natural processes and reduces crop yield and quality from the full genetic potential.
“Antioxidants help control and balance ROS to keep cells healthy,” continues Wozniak. “Our research examines stimulating natural antioxidant production.”
Her team tackles research from this angle. They listen carefully to those in production agriculture to identify challenges rooted in stress that directly impact producer profitability.
“Needs in the field direct our research,” she says. “For example, we learned that it is hard for plants to take up calcium. We used our genetic knowledge and technology to figure out how to naturally stimulate plants to more efficiently absorb calcium.”
Her diverse team has applied knowledge and technology from many branches of biological science to develop solutions for issues like drought stress, nutrient update and micronutrient delivery. In soybeans, they have been investigating treatments to mitigate pesticide damage, seed treatments to improve nodulation, and unique approaches to weed resistance.
Adam Blaszczak, Ph.D., research and development director at Cytozyme, is one member of Wozniak’s team. He applies his background in cancer research and doctorate in stress impact on proteins to identify and develop products.
“Agricultural research on biologicals is about 20 years behind the pharmaceutical industry,” he says. “We are bringing pharma expertise to ag.”
When a research challenge is posed, Blaszczak studies a representation of all genes to identify how relevant processes are naturally regulated.
“The secrets to increasing yield and quality are stored in the DNA of genes,” he explains. “We use technology to identify genes that influence a given stress response and to determine how to increase or decrease expression of those functions with biological triggers. We fully understand why and how all of our products work.”
Within each cell, DNA is transcribed to produce proteins for specific purposes, and stimulating antioxidant production to balance ROS allows this process to be more accurate and efficient. According to Blaszczak, those biological triggers become solutions to efficiently use plant energy and express full genetic potential.
“Biologicals involve hundreds to thousands of genes impacting cell functions, but we can pinpoint what functions to affect and measure how much we ‘brighten’ or ‘dim’ specific genes,” Blaszczak says. “Our solutions harvest biological manufacturing results from natural processes, rather than using synthesized chemicals.
“Technology accelerates every step of the discovery and development process,” he adds. “We can go from a theory to a product to test in just a couple months.”
Once a solution has been developed, it is tested first in growth chambers and then greenhouses. Field testing follows. A solution that shows strong response in the field and offers value to producers, the channel and the company joins the Cytozyme product portfolio.
“We have the technology to easily screen new and existing products for additional impacts that could address other research challenges,” Blaszczak says.
Cytozyme is one example of the many companies bringing products to the agricultural biologicals space. These companies have diverse goals and proficiencies that carry through their research and development processes to the products they bring to market.
“We are at the tip of the iceberg,” adds Bayer’s Hovinga. “There is so much more to uncover. I think biologicals sourced from nature are an incredibly important innovation in agriculture.”
Looking behind the biologicals to research and development approaches can help producers integrate the innovative products that best support their profitability into their operations.