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Developing Live Microbial Products with Science Driven Understanding

Barley crop fields

Günter Welz is part of the Open Innovation and Strategic Partnerships department at Bayer. He scouts for and builds relationships with external innovators in academia and business to enrich Bayer’s R&D pipeline, using various tools like the Open Innovation website and the venture capital arm.

From a regulatory perspective, we favour live microbial products. In Europe, we don’t have a registration path for biomolecules. In the USA, there are certain recombinant insecticides that are entirely biological. They have the registration of the biochemical biopesticide at EPA, which is more attractive in this case. But in Europe, they would be considered a GMO product, and therefore not a viable product. Therefore, we favour live microbials in order to be able to address the European and Asian markets.

The advantage is that a live product can replicate in the soil or on the leaf surface. However, poor shelf stability, which correlates with the reliability of products is a big downside for current products in the market.

The disadvantages of the shelf stability of live microbials are often hampered by excessive temperatures or drying of Gram-negative bacterial cells. These microbes may also be damaged by the presence of other chemicals. In the case of biopesticides, they need to be formulated with certain adjuvants or stickers in order to be sprayable: these chemicals in the formulation may also harm the microbial cells.

Understanding the mode of action for microbial products

Often, we don’t understand the mode of action of microbial products. At Bayer, we are fundamentally a science-driven company. We want to understand how our products work.

In the long run, it’s going to be extremely important to understand the modes of action because some microbes may also produce harmful metabolites. Just last year, a product from a competitor lost their European registration because the food safety authorities found a negative compound in the microbial product.

We want to verify the presence and nature of the active ingredients and we want to be sure that no bad actors are in the compound. We typically do that by looking at the genome sequence. For example, we might survey the genome for gene clusters that are known for the production of antibiotics. This means we can avoid polluting the environment with medically-relevant antibiotics.

This mode-of-action research needs to be strengthened in the future and will, in turn, enable us to significantly improve our products.

The Future Possibilities of Gene Transformation Techniques

We try to avoid lengthy and costly deregulation of GM products. Therefore, we have been using classical strain improvement, which are non-GM technologies that are not subject to regulatory review.

Typically, what we do in the course of R&D is we identify good microbial strains and show that it delivers pesticidal properties or yield-enhancing qualities. Then in the course of product development, we try to improve the yield in fermentation, as well as the production of certain metabolites. We use classical microbiological techniques for this. We do have the entire toolbox for genome editing and transformation but don’t typically use it.

Current regulation on GMOs certainly inhibits innovation. For example, if we were using CRISPR-Cas9 on eukaryotes like fungi, we would have to go through a full registration process for the GMO cropland. We shy away from this because the costs are so high and consumer acceptance is unpredictable.

It is possible to use gene transformation techniques to make microbes fix nitrogen on non-legume plants, and there a lot of opportunities for pest and disease control. Just as some companies have achieved with metabolic engineering projects for biofuels, if such techniques could produce microbials for agriculture, that would be a great leap forward.


Günter Welz is Strategic Alliance Manager in Breeding & Biologics at Bayer CropScience, Germany. He will be joining us at the 7th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Europe.


To see what topics in Plant Genomics and Gene Editing will be discussed at the 7th Plant Genomics and Gene Editing Congress: Europe, click the link to view the agenda.

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