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Bactobio Milestones: Farming Innovation Programme success

9 June 2022


Bactobio in partnership with Crop Health And Protection Ltd (CHAP), one of UK’s leading Agri-Tech centres, is kicking off a £290,264 project. The project is part of a prestigious Farming Innovation Programme (FIP) grant from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, in partnership with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA. This is our second agricultural funding grant award and fourth overall, bringing our total non-dilutive funding to £1.1 million.

The Farming Innovation Programme (FIP) was established in 2021 with £17.5 million initially allocated to support agri-tech innovation. The programme has 3 key objectives:

  1. Help increase productivity, sustainability and resilience of the agricultural and horticultural sector

  2. Deliver beneficial and innovative science-driven agricultural research and solutions to stakeholders

  3. Enhance sustainability in UK’s agriculture sector

This 18- month project will support us in addressing the growing threat of fungicide resistance by discovering future biofungicides against the major potato pathogen Phytophthora infestans. The project supports a move towards more sustainable agricultural practices by helping to reduce the burden of synthetic pesticides on UK crops.

Here, we focus on the impact of the use of synthetic fungicides and outline how Bactobio intends to reduce this burden in the agricultural sector through the discovery of novel biofungicides.

Fungicides: The good the bad and the nasty

Effective crop protection is crucial for safeguarding food security. Globally, it is estimated that almost 20-40% of crop yield is lost to pests and diseases , costing the global economy around £231 billion each year. The absence of effective crop protection would double those harvest losses and have serious impacts on growers who can lose up to 100% of a crop after infection.

Figure 1: UK farmers rely on different chemical fungicides to ensure the crops are protected against fungal pathogens that could severely impact crop yields.

Crop protection against fungal pathogens heavily relies on the use of chemical fungicides. Intensive use of these products over the last 100 years has led to a dramatic spread in pathogens developing resistance against the treatments. Most modern fungicides have a single mode of action, meaning they act on a specific biochemical pathway to kill the pathogen. These are typically applied in a cocktail or sequentially to ensure efficacy and limit resistance build-up. This prevention method is not perfect, however, and continuous use of such fungicides accelerates the spread of resistance. This effect is seen across a range of crop types and, worryingly, is even resulting in the spread of resistance in life-threatening human infections.

On top of efficacy issues, today’s much-relied-on crop protection solutions are at risk from growing health and

environmental concerns. Chlorothalonil, for example, was previously the UK’s most used fungicide but was banned in the EU in 2019 due to concerning groundwater contamination. Others removed for concerns over endocrine disruption in animals include epoxiconazole (used against rust in cereal and sugar beet) and cyproconazole (key sugar beet product).

For many crops, chemical control is likely to be a necessary part of crop protection for the foreseeable future. The lack of effective solutions targeting fungal pathogens can have a severe impact on global food security, from severe yield losses and reduced food access safety to nutritional quality. To maintain yields and reduce the environmental toll, growers require a broader toolbox for crop protection that could safeguard food security in a more sustainable and durable manner against evolving pathogen populations.

Potato late blight: A farmer’s nightmare

Potato late blight is one of the most damaging diseases facing UK crops. The causative pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, is pervasive and can be responsible for yield losses of up to 100% in infected fields. Infamous for causing the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, P. infestans is a deadly oomycete that destroys foliage and infects tubers. Left untreated, late blight can devastate crops within two weeks of infections and result in global losses of over £3.5 billion, with £800 million in the UK and EU alone.

To manage the disease, UK potatoes receive more fungicide treatments than any other arable crops, with farmers using an average of 10 treatments or up to 20 applications per season (Figure 2), costing UK farmers an estimated £55 million each year.

The extensive use of synthetic fungicide contributes to the growing resistance build-up and widespread environmental damage. An upcoming proposed ban on the blight treatment mancozeb is a significant concern for potato growers, as this is the last remaining multi-site active left in their arsenal against the disease and currently represents >40% of blight sprays. Its removal will leave growers dependent on single-site active compounds which are more costly and susceptible to resistance.

Figure 2: Average number of fungicides applied to arable crops in the United Kingdom

Source: Pesticide Usage Survey Report: Arable crops in the UK 2018

Bactobio’s project

In this project, Bactobio in collaboration with CHAP aims to search for new biofungicides against P. infestans from our growing library of unculturable bacteria.

The project comprises five technical work packages starting from a microbiome study for bacterial isolation and ending with testing of identified bioactive compounds in planta at CHAP’s advanced glasshouse facilities. The project will combine Bactobio’s existing pipeline with CHAP’s extensive expertise to applying cutting edge technology to the discovery of novel solutions and help bring these to the market.

Overall, the team aims to identify 5-10 new compounds with activity against P. infestans for downstream development and regulatory testing.

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