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NC ag tech pioneer launching eco-friendly 'plant vaccine' into Brazil soybean market

A North Carolina ag tech company is landing some major success in using a new kind of eco-friendly, portable weaponry in the global war on pests. 

Plant Health Care (PHC), a publicly traded company headquartered in Holly Springs, has received Brazilian approval to deploy its biological TEIKKO (pronounced TAKE-oh) soybean “nematicide” into that huge South American market.

The company is negotiating with distributors to make the product available to Brazilian farmers in time for the 2024-25 soybean growing season. The 2023-24 soybean harvested area in Brazil is forecast to be 45 million hectares (about 111 million acres), spotlighting a significant market opportunity for PHC.PHC logo

Kynetec, a major British purveyor of global ag and animal health market data, says Brazilian growers spent $215 million on soybean nematode control in the 2022/23 season, reflecting an annualized growth rate of 55% over six years. 

A safe, multi-faceted product based on a landmark discovery

TEIKKO is a novel product from PHC’s PREtec (Plant Response Elicitor Technology) peptide platform. PHC developed TEIKKO from a discovery by Zhongmin Wei, Ph.D., now PHC’s chief science officer.

When he was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, Wei was studying interactions between plants and pathogens such as bacteria and fungi.  He discovered proteins secreted by these pathogens that “wake up” an immune response when they touch the plant. He dubbed them “plant elicitors” for their triggering of immune responses from host plants. 

PHC plants
PHC photo of soybean (untreated on left, TEIKKO treated on right)
in a field with severe nematode pressure under drought conditions.

Based on several of those “elicitor” proteins, Wei made a recombinant protein that PHC now sells as Harpin αβ (Harpin alpha beta). Growers in more than 20 countries have been using Harpin αβ on a wide range of crops for years, including sugar cane, soybean, corn, coffee, tobacco, wheat, citrus, potato, vegetables and various fruits.

Wei’s breakthrough plant elicitor discovery was featured on the cover of the journal Science on July 3, 1992. It subsequently received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2001 national Green Chemistry Challenge Award. This annual award recognizes technologies that incorporate green design, manufacture, and use.

PHC says its PREtec platform is Wei’s extension of his original work, using harpin-derived peptides – like proteins, but containing smaller chains of amino acids. These peptides are classified by the EPA as zero-residue with low toxicity. PHC emphasizes that it’s also extremely important that the peptides are cost-effective.

Brazilian regulators have approved TEIKKO as a seed treatment to control root-lesion nematodes (Pratylenchus brachyurus) in soybeans. But PHC plans to add more crops and nematode species to the product label.

The worm turns: Peptide tech offers no-kill bug busting

TEIKKO can complement or replace conventional agrochemicals to control harmful nematodes. It can also be sprayed on plants, though some locales might require separate approvals for different application techniques.

Though it’s called a nematicide, TEIKKO doesn’t kill nematodes – or harm anything. Instead, it boosts natural defense mechanisms in plants, in much the same way vaccines boost the immune systems of humans and other mammals. “Think of it as a vaccine for plants,” said Mark Turner, PHC’s vice president of business and corporate development, in an interview.

Patrick Doyle, Ph.D., the company’s vice president of product development and regulatory affairs, explained that PHC68949 makes the treated plants become unattractive to nematodes -- microscopic roundworms that chew into plants and lay eggs in the resulting holes, which then turn into cysts. 

When a plant is treated with PHC’s peptides and produces these heightened self-defense substances, the worm turns, as the old saying goes. The nematodes simply stop feeding and go elsewhere, without laying eggs and creating cysts in the plant root. Reduced egg production also shrinks the population of nematodes without the need for traditional pesticides and “scorched earth” technologies such as fumigation, which can destroy beneficial microbes in the soil.

HQ in Holly Springs, employees around the world

PHC employs 83 people globally, eight of them in Holly Springs. Besides Turner and Doyle, the North Carolina team includes CEO Jeff Tweedy and CFO Jeffrey Hovey, as well as human resources and accounting specialists. Nine people also work with Wei at the company’s research and development facility in Seattle.

“North Carolina has proven to be an ideal location for our global headquarters,” Tweedy said. “As a leading producer of agriculture products and featuring highly respected universities, North Carolina provides convenient access to other local crop protection companies as well as to a highly educated and experienced workforce. As we launch new products around the world, such as TEIKKO in Brazil, we benefit from the reputation the RTP area has earned as a global innovation hotspot.” 

Back in 2013, PHC utilized the landing pad at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center before moving into their new HQ.

Nandini Mendu, Ph.D., NCBiotech’s senior director of focused initiatives and an ag tech specialist, said PHC’s position as a global leader in developing sustainable biological plant boosters is a major contributor to North Carolina’s leadership in new agricultural offerings. “PHC is aggressively building its earth-friendly product portfolio, providing hope in the battle against world hunger and climate change,” she said. “This Brazilian launch for TEIKKO is a key example of what’s to come from this company.”

PHC68949, produced by a contract manufacturer in Europe, is also under review by the EPA in the United States and by COFEPRIS (the Federal Committee for Protection from Sanitary Risks) in Mexico. PHC expects to sell the product under a different name, so far undetermined, if approved in the U.S. and Mexico. Other regulatory submissions are expected to follow in the future.

PHC said research carried out during the 2021/22 and 2022/23 soybean crop seasons showed that TEIKKO gave similar or superior performance to standard agrochemical treatments. However, TEIKKO offers farmers the choice to avoid use of toxic agrochemicals, without sacrificing performance.

Compared with alternative biological products, it brings benefits such as a three-year shelf life with no special requirements for storage. It allows flexibility on distribution to farmers, low application rates for easy industrial seed treatment, and no interference or incompatibility with other traditional seed treatments such as fungicides and insecticides, if customers still want to use them.

PHC says TEIKKO also provides reliable performance under different environmental conditions, such as drought or high humidity – an increasingly important factor in ag product development.

‟TEIKKO will help Brazilian farmers sustainably produce their soybean crops and supports the company's vision to be a leading global provider of alternatives to conventional agrochemicals,” said Tweedy.

“Unlike TEIKKO, current soil fumigants and other chemical nematicides are known to have damaging off-target effects. TEIKKO is an environmentally friendly biological alternative that performs as well as or better than those older technologies and we expect to see rapid adoption amongst Brazilian farmers. We are excited about the developing plans to launch TEIKKO in 2024, with strong growth thereafter."