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Peptides protecting plants from diseases for sustainable agriculture

It has been 8 years since September 2015 when the 193 member countries of the United Nations signed the 2030 Agenda. This action plan becomes increasingly relevant year after year, with each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals presenting a more tangible challenge of our time. The objectives are all interrelated, but in this context, “good health and well-being“, “climate action” and “life on land” are closely connected. Especially in terms of sustainability, when discussing consumers and dietary habits (thus consumption). 

Today’s consumers are more environmentally conscious, applying the concept of “sustainability” not only to ecosystems but also to the economic and social aspects. Therefore, choosing certain types of products – such as those from increasingly sustainable supply chains – is a genuine investment. 

For this reason, implementing a sustainable phytosanitary strategy is increasingly necessary, not only in terms of regulations for the protection of “industry workers” and the safety of the final consumer but also to decisively combat the growing problems related to climate change – resulting from water, air, and soil pollution – which often become a real environmental threat. 

An example of an eco-sustainable phytosanitary strategy is the technology of “Peptides for plant protection”, which originated and was patented in the research laboratories of Università di Padova. This technology resulted from the interdisciplinary collaboration between Marta De Zotti, Professor and Chemist, and Francesco Favaron and Luca Sella, Professors and Plant Pathologists. The research team developed a set of biomolecules with potent phytosanitary action, capable of creating a strong impact in the Agrifood sector. These peptides, similar to those naturally produced by fungi of the genus Trichoderma used in integrated pest management, but water-soluble, have been employed as biocompatible biopesticides to effectively and ecologically defend crops against common and highly damaging phytopathogenic agents. 

The objectives and the potential for significant implications led the patent for “Peptides for plant protection” to be among the winners of the 2020 IPA Award in Dubai. Curious to know the generated impact and future scenarios, we interviewed Marta De Zotti, Associate Professor at Università di Padova, Department of Chemistry. 

What has happened in the year since IPA’s participation and victory to date? What have been the starting points and what have been the spin-offs?  

In this year we have pursued the goal of making these biomolecules accessible to industrial production as crop protection products – such as vines, cereals, vegetables and fruit trees. The fundamental problem for these biomolecules is, in fact, the need to reconcile the Agritech sector’s need to put environmentally sustainable solutions on the ground with the economic factor, i.e. the profitability of the industrial investment. For ‘eco’ crop management, one tries to spend as little as possible, where as little as possible is very little indeed. Solutions involving the production of environmentally friendly active substances entail higher costs than current disease defence solutions. Even biological defence, which today is still mainly based on cupric products, which are in any case pollutants, has significantly lower costs. Environmentally friendly alternatives are not perceived as economically viable by either the industry or end users. What is lacking is an awareness of the environmental costs involved in the absence of environmentally sustainable solutions. Any proposed solution, which does not involve the use of waste, is deemed too expensive. We are therefore trying to bring down production costs to make biomolecules closer to the market. But the real problem is that if the mentality does not change, it is really difficult. I think we need awareness-raising actions combined with economic incentives, like there are for electric cars, for example. Just knowing that buying an electric car costs three times as much as a normal car certainly does not entice people to buy one. Knowledge of the environmental benefits and associated advantages, on the other hand, makes one more aware of the investment. The same applies to crop protection using environmentally friendly alternatives to copper. Much research currently aims at using substances derived from waste, but the problem is that they are scarcely effective.  Now we have these small proteins made of amino acids – thus environmentally friendly and non-toxic molecules – that are as effective as copper: an optimal solution and at a sustainable cost for other fields of application of peptides, such as in drug development. We are working on making them economically viable for the Agritech sector as well. 

Have there been any openings or applications in other fields in Agritech?  

The use of peptides in the plant protection field is very popular because even those who are not experts in chemistry or biology know that peptides are biodegradable. For other types of compounds/technologies, this awareness is not there or is less felt, and a major advertising campaign is needed to make it clear to everyone that these are biocompatible solutions. With peptides, this problem is not there. For example, peptides are also present in many creams. This is to say that their biocompatibility characteristics are known to all. From this point of view, it is a saving for companies: they do not have to invest in information campaigns for the end consumer. A lot of people are really working with peptides. 

What did participation in IPA and the context such as the EXPO mean for the Research Team?  

Thanks to IPA, I was able to expand my collaborations so much. An award of this kind has supranational significance. For international collaborations, which are the most important for the advancement of research, thanks to the IPA award I was able to present scientific data at important international congresses. From a national point of view, the award is a resource that allows us to move forward with the line of research. Because although the situation is better than in previous years, we still have difficulties when it comes to funding. And having this kind of recognition helps from this point of view. Winning IPA has confirmed again that this type of phytosanitary solution works, is useful and liked. I hope that this recognition by the Ministry of Enterprises and Made In Italy can serve as an incentive for companies to invest in the production of substances with less impact on agriculture. Production companies are also discouraged by the presence of a regulatory gap, at European level, that should be filled and that concerns the regulation of synthetic products, not extracted directly from natural matrix, but similar to natural products and in any case non-toxic and biodegradable, such as peptides. For example: if I produce a molecule in the laboratory that is the same as a natural one, it is not considered as such by the regulations, so it will have to undergo an expensive authorisation process to be placed on the market, as is the case with synthetic products, which are often of fossil origin and polluting. This regulatory vacuum at European level is a long-standing problem for plant protection companies. Biorational’ compounds – i.e. synthetic products analogous to those produced by living organisms – should be properly regulated. National recognition of these technologies such as the IPA Award is an important support, especially if it is accompanied by awareness-raising and a policy of general investment in biocompatible agritech. Meanwhile, thanks to the IPA award, we can continue research to reduce the costs of peptide synthesis and improve the characteristics of their formulations for sustainable and environmentally friendly crop protection. New environmentally sustainable and automatable synthesis methods can be extended and find application in the many other areas of peptide use. 

What results, if any, have you experienced since uploading the technology to the Knowledge Share platform? Do you find it a useful tool? If yes, why?  

It is a useful and user-friendly tool. Really straightforward. I think it is a platform that every country should have, effective both in terms of visibility of research results and contact with companies. Technology transfer faces various obstacles, but this does not depend on the platform. I think the problem is always bureaucratic and economic. Maintaining patents has very high costs and it is difficult for companies to invest in inventions patented by others. Companies prefer the new technology to be patented at the end of all the necessary steps to see if it actually has a chance of being brought to market with significant economic returns. The economic reality is indeed complex and the platform is certainly not the problem. In academia, patents are taken out early, because this then allows the results to be published and knowledge to be disseminated, but this, from the point of view of companies, is not the best way to make our discoveries ‘pay off’. 

What are the next steps in the roadmap of your project?  

We would very much like the company we worked with on the research to be interested in continuing the collaboration. We will certainly continue to work on improving the peptide synthesis procedure to make it as economical and environmentally friendly as possible. In parallel, we intend to continue research to find new peptides with phytosanitary action and expand the range of molecules to be offered to chemical and biotechnology companies. Of course, if we talk about auspices, I cannot but refer again to regulations, i.e. the updating of the classification of biocompatible plant protection substances at European level.  

For more on the technology: peptides for plant protection | Knowledgeshare (knowledge-share.eu)