Artificial intelligence is already making headway in the development of new drugs, and now the pesticide industry wants to get involved.

The Swiss Syngenta AG has teamed up with Insilico Medicine to produce sustainable weed killers using their deep learning tools. In addition to taking on some of the early-stage grunt work traditionally done in a lab, AI could develop molecules that are used in crop protection tools that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly, the companies said on Wednesday.

AI is among the new methods that are emerging as environmental and health concerns spur the search for sustainable alternatives to traditional pesticides used by farmers. Demand is also being bolstered by regulatory pressures and litigation, notably Bayer AG’s $ 11 billion settlement over claims that the long-used glyphosate herbicide causes cancer.

“Our artificial intelligence was developed from the ground up up to Produce very precise chemistry to protect human health while maintaining short-term and long-term safety, ”said Alex Zhavoronkov, chief executive officer of Insilico Medicine. “This expertise is extremely valuable for plant science.”

AI hit the headlines last year after a Google unit at Alphabet Inc. took a giant leap forward to predict the structure of proteins that have potential uses in everything from drug discovery to developing enzymes that can break down pollutants.

More collaboration

In agriculture, a backlash against traditional pesticides is leading to collaboration between chemical and biotech companies. Syngenta has invested in biological solutions that use everything from microbes to insect sex pheromones to fight fungal infections and pests. The company wants to move away from conventional chemicals into products that are less toxic to humans and more resilient to climate change, CEO Erik Fyrwald said last year.

FMC Corp. would like to expand in biological solutions as well. The Philadelphia-based company has partnered with the Danish Novozymes A / S, which produces microbes against pests. Pressure from regulators on the use of chemicals is increasing and consumers are increasingly aware of the need for sustainable products, said Ester Baiget, CEO of Novozymes.

Despite the speed of AI in computing, it will likely take years for new developments to hit the market without the regulatory environment changing.

“You can only be as fast as your slowest part, and today regulation and qualification is a huge bottleneck in innovating,” Baiget said.

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg.

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