Welcome back to Inside Enko: an introduction to our team and a peek behind the curtain of what we’re working on.
Our Fungicide Discovery Scientist Katrin Ayer is passionate about protecting plants. After earning her PhD in plant pathology and plant microbe biology at Cornell University, she joined Enko to help growers fight fungicide resistance in the field. Read on to learn about her work.
Tell me about your background. What drew you to work in agriculture, and in fungicide research specifically?
After majoring in biology for undergrad, I earned my PhD at Cornell University in upstate New York. My applied research focused on management of apple scab, which is caused by a fungal pathogen. This work was fitting because New York is the second largest apple producer in the U.S. Working directly with a crop that’s so important for the state and has implications for a large grower base was really rewarding. My favorite aspect was collaborating with these growers. I designed experiments to answer their questions, like how to manage a new disease for the following season.
Fungi are a scientific marvel in many ways. Why are they a particularly powerful threat to crops?
There are thousands of species of fungal plant pathogens, each bringing unique challenges. For a specialty crop like apple, any cosmetic issue caused by a pathogen means the crop won’t make it to the consumer, which adds to food waste and decreases farmers’ profits. Many fungal pathogens affect foliage, which directly reduces a plant’s photosynthetic capabilities and decreases yield. Others produce toxins that can harm human health.
Selectivity in fungicides is so important because they’re directly applied onto the crop. The fungicide can’t affect the plant at all.
That’s part of what your work at Enko focuses on. What resonates with you about the company’s mission?
During my PhD work, I saw how significant of an issue chemical resistance is and how it leads to ineffective management. It showed me the importance of developing novel modes of action so growers have solutions to properly tackle the diseases impacting their fields.
Enko is addressing this exact issue by searching for novel modes of action at the intersection of sustainability, safety and effectiveness. So many companies use the word “sustainability” as a catch-all, but Enko’s commitment to it is demonstrated through our whole discovery pipeline.
What does your typical day at Enko look like?
Every day is different. I often start in the greenhouse, where I will inoculate healthy plants with a fungal pathogen and apply fungicide compounds to see how this affects disease development. I also look at old tests to evaluate how disease symptoms are progressing and what compounds are working. Plant pathologists always say that we love to see a nice diseased plant! But it’s even more exciting to see a plant that was supposed to get a disease and didn’t because of the compound we applied.
I also meet with members from the biology, protein science and chemistry teams weekly. My job is fascinating because I get to work with diverse fungi, plants and people!
Do you feel a connection between your work and the massive global food supply challenges that have come to the forefront this year?
Sometimes, working in plant pathology can feel so obscure and specific. But my work at Enko focuses on pathogens that affect wheat and soybeans, so it really is connected to these major issues like global food security. It’s humbling to be involved with such an important field that every single person relies on.
How does climate change and extreme weather like hurricanes affect fungus?
When we think of fungus, we often think of humid environments. But different climates favor development of different diseases. For example, there are powdery mildews that do well in drier environments, while warm temperatures are more favorable to some pathogens. Severe weather like hurricanes can spread fungal spores to new areas.
Climate change can affect the distribution of pathogens into places where growers aren’t equipped to manage them. On top of that, increasing fungicide resistance means pathogens that were historically manageable get out of control.
How do fungal pathogens develop resistance, and what challenges does that pose to farmers?
They mutate, similar to bacteria. If a fungus develops an advantageous mutation that confers resistance to a fungicide and a grower applies that mode of action, not only will the fungicide application be ineffective but it can select for establishment of that resistant genotype in the field.
When you’re sick with a resistant bacterial infection, the doctor prescribes a medicine with a new mode of action. Similarly in the field, growers have limited modes of action. Older chemistries are still in use, but resistance has developed and regulations around applying them have become stricter. That puts growers in a really hard place because it removes tools from their toolkit and gives them nothing new. Those new tools are what we’re working on at Enko.
Interested in joining the Enko team? Check out our open roles here.
The SVG Ventures THRIVE Award acknowledges the Enko team’s accomplishments discovering and developing safe and novel small molecules across all indications – herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
By Jacqueline Heard, Founder and CEO, Enko - We’re proud to work with investors who recognize the imperative of getting new crop health solutions into farmers’ hands quickly in response to these mounting threats.
As an agricultural industry innovator, Jacqueline Heard, Founder and CEO of Enko, offers her thoughts on the future of world food security after participating in the 2023 World Economic Forum.