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Product Development & Registration Series: Turning to Nature

Advisory Blog
06.05.2020

Syngenta’s chemists and biologists are some of the best and most experienced in the business – we employ around 5,000 scientists altogether – and in my last blog I looked at how they start the search for synthetic compounds that eventually form the basis of some of Syngenta’s new crop protection products for farmers and growers.

Syngenta ornamentals advisory blog

More recently they’ve also been using their biochemical knowledge to identify sources of potential crop protection ingredients amongst the natural biochemistry of plants, fungi and bacteria. It’s not surprising really – evolution over millions of years has equipped each species with its own set of chemical defences against pests, parasites and pathogens while many also secrete compounds that prevent competitors coming too close.

Of course, it’s not a new idea. As you probably know, pyrethroid insecticides are synthetic versions of naturally occurring pyrethrins, compounds originally discovered in the seeds of certain members of the daisy family.

And abamectin, the active in our widely used insecticide Dynamec, is one of a group of compounds (avermectins) discovered in the 1970s as a molecule secreted by the naturally occurring soil bacterium Streptomyces avermitilis, which when analysed was found to have insecticidal properties – it works by disrupting the pest’s nervous system.

Our knowledge of the genetic relationships between species, and of their ecology, helps us pinpoint the ones most likely to yield the kinds of compounds that could be developed into safe and effective crop protection products.

Finding them in nature is just the start. Synthetic copies are often more cost-effective to produce so our scientists still need to analyse their chemistry and structure – and along the way may be able to work out how to modify them to make them safer and more effective.

Once we’ve identified likely molecules – whether based on natural compounds or completely synthetic – laboratory analyses are used to confirm their activity and potential. Those that pass are taken to the first stage of biological screening tests, for example exposing insect larvae, fungal cultures or weed seedlings to small doses. At the same time we start to determine these compound’s likely side-effects, and hence their safety to the environment, wildlife and people.

For every 100,000 molecules we initially consider, just 30 are still with us by the third year of development when we start to evaluate potential uses and begin work on assembling the safety and environmental data we’ll need for registrations around the world.

Next time we’ll see how the later stages of development, and the ever-more complex process of meeting pesticides legislation, shape the products you use.

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