Harnessing boron chemistry in agriculture

By Dr Tony Liu, Chief Science Officer at Boragen

Dr Tony Liu, Chief Science Officer at Boragen considers the advantages of boron-based compounds in providing a new chemical

Dr Tony Liu, Chief Science Officer at Boragen considers the advantages of boron-based compounds in providing a new chemical toolbox for developing bioactive molecules with unique mechanisms for crop protection.   
Regardless of geographic and socioeconomical dispositions, access to affordable and nutritious food is a basic human right. However, the diverse challenges that threaten our global food system rarely enter the consciousness of many in the developed world. Our food system is a complex matrix that connects everyone worldwide. Local issues within the food system can trigger a chain reaction that significantly impacts the global economy, security, political stability, human welfare/happiness and health systems. Today, the global food system is being pressured by loss of arable land, emergence of new pest problems, population growth, limited water resources, and resistant pathogens that have outsmarted currently-available crop protection technologies. Thus, the development of new technologies is not only important for addressing current agricultural challenges, but also vital to the wellbeing of humanity.
Our industry is at a critical junction: the conventional fungicide market has not seen new modes-of-action or products in decades. Despite efforts to delay resistance, single and multi-fungicide resistance is increasingly more common, causing drastic yield loss of crops. This phenomenon extends beyond fungicides; it also applies to other crop protection chemistries. Traditionally, crop protection chemistries have been mostly developed by major companies, partly due to the intense R&D resources needed for bringing new chemistry to commercialization, a lack of entrepreneurial culture/ecosystem in the industry, and an overall scarcity of funding and venture investments for agrochemical innovation. Furthermore, the agrochemicals industry has recently experienced significant consolidation, as exemplified by Dow-Dupont (2017), SyngentaChemChina (2017), and BayerMonsanto (2018). At status quo, the fate of the future global food system rests in the hands of 4-5 monolithic corporations. Recent mergers will likely result in large corporations further narrowing their focus to maximize operational cost efficiency, at the expense of research and innovation.
The need for external innovation and collaboration is now more important than ever. International events such as the AgChem & Tech Europe Congress bring together talented individuals with diverse backgrounds, encouraging industry-wide brainstorming and fostering a collaborative ecosystem. When productive partnerships are formed between big companies and small start-ups, innovative ideas can flourish and materialize. With the entrepreneurial ecosystem gaining greater attention from investors, the agrochemicals industry is primed for substantial changes and scientific advancement.
Boragen exemplifies the kind of unconventional innovation that is increasingly needed in the agrochemicals industry. Boragen was founded by pioneers in boron-based chemistry as a spin-out from Penn State University. The company has assembled a mission-oriented team of industry-experienced executives and world-leading boron experts to focus on three key research areas: fungicides, insecticides, and animal parasitics.
Boron is unlike any other atom
Boron-based small molecules possess three advantages. First, boron has a unique geometry that allows boron-based compounds to access two distinct shapes, and bind to biological targets in novel ways that are not accessible with other compounds. Secondly, boron-based compounds can be easily modulated to vary between two forms possessing distinct physical and electronic properties, thus offering another level of flexibility for fine-tuning chemical parameters such as reactivity, formulation type, and bio-accessibility. Thirdly, boron’s unique reactivity (empty p-orbital and ability to form reversible dative covalent bond with targets) allows the molecules to interact with biological targets that are difficult to inhibit with traditionally developed small molecules based on carbon, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen. Given these advantages, a rationally curated boron-based platform will provide a new chemical toolbox for developing bioactive molecules with unique mechanisms.   
Boron is a naturally occurring element in the environment, often in the form of water-soluble borates, and it is an essential micronutrient for plants. However, the rationalized design of boron-containing small molecules has only recently received attention in life science, with some breakthrough applications discovered in the pharmaceutical industry. These scientific validations also demonstrated the vast potential for boron chemistry, including new uses in agriculture. To harness this potential, Boragen is developing a novel agrochemical compound, BAG8, which exhibits potent broad spectrum fungicidal activity and possesses a novel mode-of-action, providing a new tool for farmers to combat current resistance issues. BAG8 also exhibits synergistic activity when combined with many common registered fungicides and is thus capable of addressing current crop diseases while lowering overall pesticide burden on the environment.  
Modern agricultural challenges will increasingly require our collective efforts, skills, and accelerated innovation. Boragen exemplifies a novel approach to this need for innovation in the agrochemicals industry by leveraging its team’s expertise and unique boron-based toolbox. In this way, we aim to develop solutions to pressing agricultural challenges and contribute to the fight against threats to our global food system.
Dr Tony Liu will be speaking at the AgChem & Technology Congress in London on 20-21 November 2018.  To download the agenda and find out more, visit or get in touch with a member of the team at or +44 (0)203 696 2920. If you’re ready to register, don’t forget that Chemicals Knowledge Hub readers are entitled to a 10% discount off their pass. Simply quote CKH10 at the time of booking. 
Dr Tony Liu, Chief Science Officer at Boragen Inc, PO Box 12878, 6 Davis Drive, Suite 827, Durham, NC 27709, USA.