When you spend quality time with scientists and researchers at any company – a pastime that's plenty fun by the way – you learn some interesting things. First of course, is that in the crop protection world everyone is looking for new and novel proteins and molecules that can be used in a variety of ways.
Screening systems are in place and often they can include automated systems where companies screen thousands of molecules regularly for weed or insect impact. In the biotech world, however, you're looking for proteins that can then have an insecticidal impact. Then you want to find a way to get the target plant to express that protein so it'll do the intended job. But where to find the protein?
Here's an interesting story: A Syngenta researcher found the basic bacteria that eventually became Viptera in his refrigerator after being gone on vacation. On return he had a carton of very sour milk, and instead of throwing it out like a non-researcher might, he took it to the office.
Finding high-tech traits sometimes involves a little less tech than many farmers might think. Sour milk, is one example.
It was there that he discovered a bacteria – a new bacillus strain in fact – called AB88. Yep right in his own fridge there as sitting a new bacteria just waiting to be discovered.
Turns out AB88 "secretes a novel insecticidal protein into a culture media" which means eventually it could be bred into corn plants. And it was named Vegetative Insecticidal Protein 3 or Viptera3 and the rest is history.
Dirk Benson, who heads up seed research at Syngenta's Advance Crop facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C., shared that story at the recent Syngenta Media Summit. But it wasn't the only story he shared. It seems that sometimes there's inspiration for finding new tools. There's ingenuity. And then there's just dumb luck.
Another product they were researching was aimed at killing above ground insect pests – like corn ear worm or European corn borer, but it wasn't doing the job. To avoid a long discussion of molecule construction, it turns out that a version of the Bacillus thuringiensis used just didn't cut it with the above ground pests. Then a young woman in the research lab did something unorthodox. She fed it to corn rootworm – not the originally intended target.
"It killed them," says Benson. "It was designed to kill lepidopteran pests but it failed. But it killed corn rootworm – and that's one of the hardest molecules to find."
That's the protein that eventually became Duracade, a new mode of action for controlling corn rootworm, and providing help in managing resistance for the problem pest too. Again, it's an example of researchers trying new things and seeing what might work.
For me it proves something else – that scientists are willing to try anything once. They're working to determine solutions to long-troubling problems and seeking new ways to get the job done. Sure we were at Syngenta when we heard this story, but I'll bet their competitors have similar stories they share when they each attend research-focused conferences.
It's the beauty of science. Sometimes the answers are revealed in methodical ways. And sometimes they just dawn on you. Either way, new tech happens.