A quest for new products

17 June 2019
The portfolio of the VIB Discovery Sciences team does also include agro-applications. Anne Helfer was a senior scientist at BASF Plant Science Crop design before joining the VIB Discovery Sciences team. She has rich experience in crop protection and plant growth regulation. She collaborates with Lieven De Veylder, group leader at the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology. In his research, Lieven aims at identifying mechanisms that link cell division with environmental stimuli. Both Anne Helfer and Lieven De Veylder are engaged in a quest for new products. 

What major challenges does agriculture nowadays face?
Anne: “The challenges are threefold. The agricultural industry desperately needs new products, farmers face
low income and consumers want healthy foods at low cost. Innovation in support of sustainable agriculture is
an important societal challenge. New ‘perfect’ products need to be safe and user friendly, economically viable with a good cost/benefit ratio for the farmer, biologically efficient with a fast impact and of course environmentally sound with no toxicity. Knowing that worldwide some 30.000 weeds compete with crops for space, nutrients, water and light, it is clear that the search for weed management strategies is on.“

Were you specifically searching for an effective herbicide?
Lieven: “No, my job as a scientist is to unravel the chemical biology of plants. We basically address the question: how do plant cells know when to proliferate and when to stop dividing? In doing so we screen for compounds inducing polyploidy in plants. Polyploidy increases crop yield and we found that one specific
new compound C17 induces polyploidy and possesses strong herbicidal properties. In short, it can be the​ starting point for a program to develop a spray herbicide.“

Anne: “That’s when we at the VIB Discovery Sciences team come forth, we spotted the potential of C17 in its
use in combination with other existing herbicides and we started the activities to discover additional novel compounds.”

Does this mean that the process towards a new agro-biotech innovation smoothly unfolds according to plan?
Lieven: “Optimization of the compound is still crucial. C17 needs to get a higher potency, its eco/toxicity
profile needs tailoring and we need to enhance its formulation. But that is exactly why the VIB Discovery Sciences team is assisting us.”

Anne: “It’s like an intricate puzzle. The research grant of FWO as a funding agency allows the scientists
to develop novel biology, we have a hit compound discovery thanks to the activities of the VIB Discovery Sciences team and the VIB Screening Core. The current activities are aimed at optimizing the compound together with a chemistry partner, the KRICT. For the actual development we will set up a search for an external partner. Every little piece of the puzzle needs to fit flawlessly before we can partner around this
project to further develop an innovative agro-product and thereby achieve impact for farmers.”

Go back to the overview: 'VIB Discovery Sciences'​​​

Anne Helfer and Lieven De Veylder
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