Mining marine biofilms for novel bio-based herbicides

Weed control is a major challenge in both conventional and organic farming. Thanks to their reliability, cost-effectiveness and ease of use, herbicides remain the most widely used control strategy in most industrialized farming systems. However, herbicides face a number of drawbacks. A significant number of herbicidal molecules have been withdrawn from the market owing to concerns about health and the environment, and those that remain increasingly face resistance issues. As such, there is a huge unmet need for novel, sustainable herbicides.

In the search for those novel herbicides, researchers are increasingly turning to natural sources: metabolites derived from soil-dwelling micro-organisms and plants. However, one vast repository of natural compounds remains unexplored: the world’s seas and oceans.

Why would you find herbicides in the sea, where very few plants live? Because ocean ecosystems are inhabited by vast number of algae, organisms that share a huge range of cellular processes with land plants – not least photosynthesis, the key driver of plant life. Perhaps the most promising place in marine ecosystems to start looking for herbicides are marine biofilms: communities in which dense populations of algae and bacteria live together, sometimes in collaboration and sometimes in fierce competition. We already know that bacteria in marine biofilms can produce a range of algicidal compounds, but it remains an open question whether those molecules hold promise as herbicides.

In collaboration with a lab studying marine algae, our chemical lab recently discovered a novel class of algicidal molecules derived from bacteria living in such marine biofilms. We already have some preliminary data indicating that these molecules can inhibit the growth of land plants as they do for marine algae, but it’s early days still.

The next phase of our research will be about finding out how effective those molecules are, whether they can be produced efficiently and whether we can optimize their activity. Ultimately, that might lead to an entirely new, sustainable class of herbicides.

As a bioscience-engineer in chemistry and bioprocess technology, this project combines the two aspects that are key for my field of research, the organic chemistry, and the biological applications these molecules can have. Therefore, I think our lab is ideally situated to make a difference in this highly multidisciplinary field.

Simon Backx, Belgium

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