A radically different approach to herbicide development that uses insights from evolutionary biology to offer new modes of action is being offered by start-up MoA Technology. The company has developed a crop protection discovery platform to find new herbicide leads. Co-founder Professor Liam Dolan says that its rapid screening process, which uses both whole plants and active ingredients, should fast track the development of effective herbicides with low environmental impacts.
Professor Dolan, who is also the Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford, says: “The majority of herbicides used today act upon the weeds in a small number of ways and this has encouraged resistance. What is needed is a more diverse tool kit with a variety of different chemistries that can be used alongside non-chemical measures to provide sustainable crop protection.
“We have developed a really neat technology that allows us to rapidly screen naturally occurring and synthetic molecules to identify potential new herbicide leads that work in different ways. We can screen their efficacy against entire plants using imaging processing, then from this we can get a lot of information about how the molecules are killing the plants and use this to identify new targets.”
Blackgrass is an example of an aggressive weed that has become resistant to many herbicides. Blackgrass has flourished over recent years, benefiting from a reduction in deep ploughing and an increase in September drilling of wheat. Together these measures have created perfect germination conditions for the weed, and with the rapid increase in population came the opportunity for mutations that offer resistance to this group of herbicide chemistries that act in similar ways.
By developing herbicides with different modes of action, MoA Technology is confident that it can break the herbicide ‘arms race’ and provide more sustainable solutions to farmers.
Professor Dolan continues: “The Holy Grail would be a herbicide mixture that combines multiple, new modes of action that control weeds and minimises the chance of resistance evolving. Only small amounts would be needed because this mixture would be highly potent and with the advances in precision spraying it could be applied only where it was needed.
Preliminary results from MoA Technology’s trials “exceeded expectations”.
The company’s technology delivers evidence that the compound is safe and effective at an early stage in the discovery process and can provide a prediction of the risk of resistance occurring in the field. Together these elements will help reduce both the cost and time to market of new product development.
Sustainable cultivation techniques such as no-till, which reduces soil erosion, will also benefit from MoA Technology’s discoveries. Currently these approaches are at risk as they are dependent on herbicides such as glyphosate, which are being withdrawn from use. Providing a new generation of herbicides with minimal impact on other organisms and soil health would offer an alternative to these chemistries and support more sustainable methods of cultivation.
MoA Technology has raised £8 million in seed and Series A funding rounds and by the end of the year will employ 15 people at its headquarters in the Oxford BioEscalator.