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Crop protection, metabolism and linking researchers with farming, a Q&A with Rob Edwards

Date Published: 16/10/2023

Professor Rob Edwards recently won the RASE Science and Technology Award at the 2023 RASE awards.

Throughout his career Rob has carried out significant and impactful research to understand the mechanism by which plants are able to metabolise herbicides, which often underpins their selectivity in controlling weeds, a problem that remains one of the most significant challenges for arable farmers in the UK. The research culminated in the development and commercialisation of a rapid field test, enabling farmers and agronomists to detect metabolism-based herbicide resistance in wild grasses in the field and change management practice accordingly.

Throughout his career, Rob has championed the interaction between industry and academia, and has led Newcastle University to the position it has today of being one of the leading interfaces between academia and the farming industry.

Following the RASE awards day, communication manager Natasha Smith caught up with Rob to understand how he has worked with both industry and the farming community to find crop protection solutions.  

Can you share what led you into working in agricultural research in the first place?

I became interested in crop protection while studying for my first degree in biochemistry, so after graduating I went on to do a PhD jointly with industry. At the time Shell had a large wing of its business involved in agrochemical development and was involved in the development of pyrethroid insecticides. For my PhD I looked at the toxicity of pyrethroids, which were very toxic to fish, but not toxic to birds. Shell was interested in this because older types of insecticides, had often been very toxic to birds, which was one of the reasons they were being taken off the market. The team at Shell wanted to understand why the pyrethroids were toxic to some animals but not others, so I spent three years working with Shell’s insecticide division, working out the toxicology of the compounds in different animals.

It turned out that one of the reasons birds were so tolerant to pyrethroid insecticides was because they were able to break them down quickly, so I became interested in how agrichemicals were metabolised, both by the target organisms that they are being used to control and by non-target organisms.

During my PhD I started making contacts in industry, which led to the opportunity to do post-doctoral research working on herbicides. In this research I was trying to understand why herbicides were toxic to weeds, but a lot less toxic to crops. Once again, metabolism cropped, with the herbicides being broken down faster in the crop than in the weed. The metabolism of agrochemicals was the common thread in my early research.

How have you worked with industry to develop crop protection solutions?

After my post-doctoral project I worked in United States for a couple of years for a biotech company which was involved in crop improvement. I came back to the UK in 1991 and set up a research group at the University of Durham. From that point onwards I have always worked closely with agrochemical companies.

By the late 1990s, we were starting to see more and more resistance to herbicides occurring in weeds, which quickly became a focus of our group’s research. Once again, metabolism was important. If a weed can metabolise the herbicide as quickly as the crop plant then there is often no difference in the toxicity and selective control is lost, as the weed is as resistant as the crop.

We became interested in herbicide resistance being a target for new agrochemical development. We reasoned that instead of abandoning the herbicide, you could treat the resistance mechanism to restore control.

As part of this, we worked with Syngenta on a project where we identified a protein which is present in grass weeds, including blackgrass, annual rye grass and wild oats, which seemed to be important in controlling metabolism-based resistance.

With a protein target, we could design a chemical to knock out its role in resistance, which at the time looked very promising.  We did discover chemicals with such activity, but many of them were too toxic to use in the environment and the economics didn’t stack up, as the product would have needed the same licensing requirements and registration fees as if it were a new herbicide, so it wasn’t developed further.

But the research had led to us knowing the protein was responsible for controlling resistance, and that when plants increased the expression of this protein they became resistant to a herbicides . This led us to consider the development of diagnostics, so farmers, agronomists and growers can know if they have a herbicide-metabolism resistance problem.

We published a paper on the origins of the protein and its identification in 2013, and filed a patent at the same time. We had a protein target, we knew that if we measured the protein as being at unusually high levels, then the weeds are almost certainly going to be resistant, but at that point we could measure the protein in the laboratory but not in the field, which limited how the knowledge could be applied in practical farming.

How did you come to work with farmers to develop a diagnostics test which could be used in a field?  

Up until that point in my career I’d worked closely with large agrochemical companies, but we approached a smaller company called Mologic, now Global Access Diagnostics, which made diagnostic kits mainly for medical applications. One of the technologies they had developed was the now very familiar lateral flow test. Together with Mologic, we developed a lateral flow test which used antibodies to detect the presence of the protein which enabled resistance to herbicides.

We had a launched a prototype of the kit at Cereals in 2016. This received a lot of interest at the time, but also generated a lot of skepticism about how such tests could be of practical value. From 2017 to 2022 we developed different generations of the testing technology, making it more reliable, cheaper and easier to use, and engaged constantly with growers and agronomists to make it as useful as possible.

We chose a business model in which growers and agronomists could buy the kit, called BReD, direct from the website. The route to commercialisation was completely different to the work I’d been involved in previously, as with agrochemical companies you typically develop the technology and then pass the product to the industry partner for final application. The good thing about developing the rapid field test with a smaller company was that there was a lot of interaction with the farming community. We went to shows all across the UK to demonstrate the units and we achieved sales across the country.

What have you learnt from working more closely with farmers?

Initially, the disconnect between farming research and the farming community really shocked me. I remember going to meetings where an academic would start talking about research going on in the name of UK agriculture on anything from plant breeding to soil health, and the farming community in the room would know nothing about it. I thought that was a serious breakdown, for farmers to have no connection with agricultural research. But similarly, a lot of researchers had little connection with the farming community either.

When we started developing the diagnostic technology, I was struck by the fact that margins were low in arable farming, so farmers were not making enough money per hectare on the wheat to be able to afford to spend extra sums of money doing diagnostics or add costs to crop protection on top of what they normally do. Understanding the cost benefit of the test was crucial, as was working with the farming community to explain why we were doing the research and how they could be involved in it.

In any research, it’s imperative to understand what the end user wants and what they will adopt. It’s pointless to give somebody a solution they’ve never asked for, they’re unfamiliar with and probably very skeptical of. Involving farmers at early stages is crucial, but unfortunately a lot of academic research is still done for the farming community, with little understanding of what farmers actually want.

Looking to the future, what’s next for crop protection and research in this area?

The expansion of activities that link farmers with researchers will continue to be important. I see that university research farms, agricultural societies and the Agricultural Universities Council all have a role to play in this. It’s important that farmers and researchers have opportunities to connect, and agricultural universities need to work together to give a coherent view on developments, as people don’t want to hear conflicting advice all the time.

In terms of the direction of research for crop protection, there’s parallels with what is going on in human health research, as the focus shifts from crop protection to crop health. Like in human medicine, where we know now that many people are unwell due to lifestyle factors, there are opportunities to use diagnostics more effectively to drive crop management decisions.

Simple, in-field diagnostics tests could be used to decide whether to use agrochemicals such as herbicides. This could slow the development of resistance issues, while saving input costs. Similarly, there’s still a tendency towards insurance applications of fungicides and insecticides, especially when a tractor with a boom sprayer is driving through the fields anyway, why not spray with a fungicide at the time for the extra protection? But often the risk of fungal infection is quite low, and farmers are applying product when it isn’t needed. Again, a reliable, cheap and quick in-field diagnostic test will enable growers and agronomists to make informed crop management decisions and reduce their costs without incurring losses in productivity or quality.

Finally, biological control options are a really interesting area. They can work well, but are generally not as fast working as chemical based pesticides. For their effective use there’s a need to understand the biology of the pests being controlled as well as that of the crop. In other words, crop protection is centered around the crop, but to use biological controls you need to know more about the ecology of the pathogens, weeds, insects and everything else that is in the environment where the crop is growing. In essence, it’s thinking about how we adopt a prevention rather than cure approach in arable agriculture, in the same way as is being done in human health.

About the RASE Science and Technology award

The RASE Science and Technology Award was launched in 2022, to further promote the outstanding research and innovation that is enabling transformative change with the agri-food sector.

The award evolved from two previous awards – the Research Award and the Technology Award. The Research Award was introduced in 1954, when the Council approved the introduction of a medal for research work of outstanding merit, carried out in the UK, which was proven or likely to be of benefit to agriculture. The Technology Award recognised those who, working in a commercial environment, applied scientific advance into technology through the development of a product or process.

The award is now sponsored by Trinity AgTech, one of three independent subsidiaries of Trinity Natural Capital Group.

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