BORAGEN: Protecting Plants With Shape-Shifting Boron Molecules

By: Dr. Ripudaman Singh, Asstt. Editor-ICN & Hemant Kumar, Special Correspondent-ICN

NEW DELHI: According to the United Nations, every year, plant diseases and pets account for 20-40% of the world’s crop loss. Although, trade provided farmers access to more markets, it has also helped spread serious diseases, like the strain of fusarium wilt fungus now threatening global banana production.  

In spite of big agriculture firm launching new pesticides every year, there is no readymade solution for every pest problem. In fact, two of commercialized in the early 1960s; eventually organisms develop resistance to the old standbys. None are available now to save bananas or the many crops vulnerable to pesticide-resistant diseases.

“Agriculture needs a new chemical platform to help with issues like resistance.” Says C. Tony Liu, Co-founder and chief Scientific Officer of Boragen.

Liu and his colleagues at Boragen have built a library of plant-pest-killing chemicals which all have one thing in common: a structure based on boron.

Today’s pesticides come from traditional carbon-, nitrogen-, sulfur-, or metal-based chemistry, while Boron is neglected, Liu says, because the activity of complex boron molecules can be hard to predict.

Stronger spray: Boragen is developing benzoxaborole fungicide that can be mixed with traditional fungicides.  The two modes of action prevent disease organisms from developing resistance to the chemicals. Further, the boron-containing molecules’ effectiveness has been fine-tuned using of two shapes to better fit the disease target.

Liu was introduced to the idea of bio-active boron molecules and his future Boragen co-founders at the start of his postdoctoral research at the Pennsylvania State University.  He met scientists who successfully deployed boron in treatments for skin infection and other diseases, proving that boron can be used to make safe, biologically active molecules.  

It turn, out that agriculture has plenty of biological target to pursue with the help of boron.  That opportunity gave Boragen a spot at the new Research Triangle Park, N.C.- based AgTech Accelerator.  In early 2017, the Company emerged from AgTech with $10 million in funding from accelerator investors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bayer and Syngenta.

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