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concern about resistance to crop chemicals now in use. The most common way that fungi develop resistance is through mutations that alter the part of a cell targeted by a fungicide, which makes the microorganism less sensitive to the chemical, according to the Fungicide Resistance Action Committee, a part of the Belgium-based agricultural technologies trade organization CropLife International. While a fungicide may kill the initial population of pathogens, mutant fungi that aren’t sensitive to the chemical may be unaffected. These changes can happen quickly. FRAC notes that a single Phytophthora infestans lesion on a potato plant leaf can produce thousands of spores, each of them capable of becoming a new lesion within days.
Besides addressing fungicide resistance, the Bayer-Trana partnership might also be able fill in gaps in crop protection left by products that don’t work on certain fungal diseases, Ulanch says. He adds that there is now greater need for narrower, more targeted fungicides given the growing adoption of agricultural microbials, applications of beneficial microorganisms that promote plant health or help crops resist environmental stresses, such as drought. A recently launched microbial product from Monsanto (NYSE: MON) and Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM), for example, which was developed to help improve corn yield, is based on a fungus found in soil.
Turner says that any new fungicides that emerge from Bayer’s partnership with Trana will be tested to avoid “off-target effects” on plants or beneficial microbes. Bayer will finance Trana’s research under the partnership, and will own any candidates that emerge from the research. The German company will also be responsible for bringing these chemicals through testing and regulatory approval. The partnership is not exclusive, which leaves Trana free to pursue collaborations with other companies.
The Trana technology, originally developed at North Carolina State University, has applications in both plant and human health. When the company spun out of the university in 2005, its initial work focused on developing antibiotic and antiviral drugs. The company still has those programs but has since turned its focus to plants. Trana’s research now includes programs addressing fungal diseases that affect bananas, oranges, and wheat.
Bayer and Trana haven’t discussed broadening the research collaboration to find anti-infective drugs for human health, Turner says. But Bayer might be interested in finding more agricultural applications of Trana’s technology.
“If the technology works well, it would be natural to consider it for pesticide discovery,” Turner says.