Bayer is backing the launch of the Israeli biotech Ecophage, which will develop environmentally friendly crop disease treatments based on bacteria-hunting viruses called bacteriophages.
Bacteria can cause a range of diseases in crops, including blight and root rot. These infections are often hard to control because they happen faster than fungal infections. The treatments used by growers, such as copper-based chemicals, can also be toxic for the environment, creating a strong need for environmentally friendly solutions.
To address this problem, Bayer has teamed up with the Israeli life sciences investor Trendlines to form a company called Ecophage. The biotech company will develop treatments based on viruses called bacteriophages that hunt and kill specific species of bacteria. This would leave the crops and any beneficial microorganisms in the environment untouched.
Only a few phage treatments have been approved for use in agriculture so far. One of these, Agriphage, was approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency last year for treating fire blight.
There remain a number of obstacles for getting more bacteriophages to the market, including strict regulations and safety concerns about bacteria becoming resistant to bacteriophages. In addition, phage treatments are sometimes not stable enough to work in the field despite showing promise in lab conditions.
Ecophage’s approach, exploring combinations of bacteriophages for the most effective treatment, could bear fruit in this tricky field. The company’s specific crop disease targets haven’t yet been disclosed.