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Transforming industrial agrichemical research through the development of novel chemical tools and technologies to investigate molecular interactions

Final Report Summary - NEXGENAGRICHEM (Transforming industrial agrichemical research through the development of novel chemical tools and technologies to investigate molecular interactions)

The increasing world population, predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050, will make huge demands on the agricultural biotechnology industry with respect to the development of agrochemicals that are able to drive and sustain increases in the production of food and fibre from plants, whilst mitigating competition for water and land use. There is thus an urgent need to exploit opportunities to develop and adopt new and existing technologies to increase crop productivity and impact upon one of the major challenges facing society, namely global food security.
The heart of the NexGenAgriChem’s strategy was to train a new generation of multidisciplinary researchers with the language, multidisciplinary skills and knowledge to equip them to undertake research at the interface of the Agri and Physical Sciences – a cohort that has underpinned the development of novel tools and technologies able to provide molecular insight into the mode of action of agrochemicals.

The design of the NexGenAgriChem Innovative Doctoral Training Programme (IDP) framework supported this training challenge, and aimed to transform the landscape of rational agrochemical design by providing 13 carefully selected Early Stage Researchers (ESRs), from 9 countries across the globe, with a toolkit to enable them to predict and probe (i) the transport and distribution profiles of potential lead candidates (Delivery), as well as (ii) their mode of action (Destiny) within plants and pests at the molecular level - widely recognised as technological bottlenecks in agrochemical research. The suite of multi-disciplinary, intersectoral PhD research projects were focused at the agri-science / physical science interface, and were each co-supervised by leading researchers from academia (Imperial College London) and industry (Syngenta).

Primary Objectives of the NexGenAgriChem Training Programme:
• To produce a cohort of world-class multidisciplinary researchers for academic and industrial research.
• To support a new wave of physical scientists working at the cutting edge of the physical science / agri-science interface bringing a quantitative physical-chemical approach to selected problems.
• To provide the first step in training the research leaders of the future.

The ESRs joined the programme in October 2014 and we are delighted that all of the training and research goals were successfully completed by the end of the programme in February 2018. The programme exposed the ESRs continuously to industry culture and practices, cemented by secondments at the research facilities of Syngenta in the UK, which gave the ESRs an understanding of the important role that physical science innovation plays in the agrochemical discovery pipeline. The ESRs, supervisors and industrial collaborators formed a strong and vibrant research community, which will continue beyond the lifetime of this project, and has proven to be a creative well-spring for exciting research.

Programme Highlights
- Completed training of 16 core lecture courses, a bio-practical and 7 transferable skills courses.
- 3 Industry visits to Syngenta’s research sites at Jealott’s Hill, UK and Stein, Switzerland providing insight into the industrial agrochemical pipeline.
- Exceeded expectations in the delivery of the outputs from the scientific research projects.
- Ten publications in international, peer-reviewed journals by April 2018, with >20 in preparation or under review.
- All ESRs have either published their work, have a paper under review or in preparation.
- The Amber Membrane Builder and Analysis Tool (AMBAT), which has been designed by one of our ESRs has recently been launched via AMBER Tools 18.
- Delivery of 124 poster and 39 oral presentations at national and international conferences.
- The ESRs have received ten prizes or awards for their research.
- NexGenAgriChem research referred to in >60 invited lectures given by Imperial College supervisors at national and international conferences and meetings.
- Co-organisation of The London Schools Science Competition attracting ~500 GCSE & A-level students.
- Engaging farmers, growers and suppliers of Sainsbury’s, the second largest chain of supermarkets in the UK, with NexGenAgriChem research
- Reaching out to >36,000 members of the wider public through events including The Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition, Science Museum Food & Drink Lates Event, Imperial College Fringe events and the annual Festival of Science.
- 2-day visit to Bayer CropScicence, Frankfurt, gaining experience of the importance of chemical and biological research being undertaken, as well as offering numerous networking opportunities.
- Organisation of the Agri Futures Conference, a Chemical Biology conference hosting talks from international research institutes.
- Organisation of the Chemical Biology Winter School and the Visiting Professorship Scheme, where talks, panel discussions and bespoke workshops were given by invited senior researchers from other European institutes.
- 2-week Professional Internship Placements, to promote movement across sectors and understand the impact of research on the wider economy and society. This included academia, industry, policy making, patent law, scientific publishing and consultancy (e.g. Berkeley and Stanford Universities, Novartis, Nature Publishing, Boult Wade Tennant LLP and Bio Nano Consulting).
- Three ESRs received follow-on funding to continue their NexGenAgriChem work at Imperial College London, underpinning follow-on collaborations with Syngenta.
- By April 2018, six ESRs have taken up postdoctoral positions in academic institutions, one has taken a position as trainee Patent attorney and another is working in the Science Industry.

Programme Impact
The NexGenAgriChem programme produced highly skilled, multidisciplinary researchers able to undertake research at the interface between the agri and physical sciences and therefore contributed to European research excellence and competitiveness. Moreover, the programme played an active part in bridging the gap between academia and industry via its intense partnership with the agrochemical industry. The PhD students were also equipped with transferable skills needed in both the public and private sectors and benefited from both the trans-national and inter-sector principles of mobility. The programme also placed a very strong emphasis on the communication of results and participation in outreach activities. As such, the importance of the societal challenge addressed by the NexGenAgriChem, namely food security, was conveyed to the general public via over 10 events, which exposed our research to over 36,000 people.

More information can be found on the NexGenAgriChem website ( or by contacting the Network Director, Dr Laura Barter (

Dr Laura Barter, Director of NexGenAgriChem
Department of Chemistry
Faculty of Natural Sciences
Imperial College London
+44 207 7594 1885