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Q&A: Robert Reiter, Bayer

A DNA chip the size of a quarter reveals much about how plant breeding has advanced since Bob Reiter joined Bayer’s legacy company Monsanto back in 1998. The DNA chip holds information from 14 acres of field research that Bayer CropScience uses to make breeding program decisions. 

“That would have been unfathomable 20 years ago,” says Reiter, who now heads research and development for Bayer CropScience. 

He sees plant breeding progress accelerating due to gene editing. Last year, Bayer CropScience and a firm called Pairwise formed a collaboration to research ways to use tools like CRSPR-Cas9 to produce new gene-edited crop products. 

“This is technology I believe will, in the long run, fundamentally reshape plant breeding,” says Reiter.

Reiter, who held a similar position for Monsanto, sees last year’s acquisition of Monsanto also speeding Bayer’s products to market. Traditionally, it took Bayer 12 to 14 years to develop and commercialize a new herbicide. Simultaneously, Monsanto used its seed and trait technology to develop herbicide-tolerant crop varieties. 

“That would add 10 years to an innovation life cycle,” Reiter says. 

Joining forces now enables Bayer to speed a product to market faster, as both technologies can follow a parallel track, he says. “It could allow us to simultaneously launch the crop-protection product at the same time as the seed product.”

One frustration corn and soybean farmers face is that no new herbicide sites of action have been discovered since the 1980s. Bayer’s looking, says Reiter. It’s collaborating with Targenomix, a firm that uses various genomic tools to better understand how various molecules affect plants. Hopefully, this will identify new sites of action, he says. 

SF: What’s been your biggest challenge with the new firm?

BR: We have great people, with thousands of scientists. The biggest challenge is to quickly connect them to work on projects.

SF: The industry trend has been to develop herbicide-tolerant traits for older herbicides, such as with dicamba. Will this model continue?  

BR: In the past, part of that was intentional. The company developing those traits didn’t have a pipeline of new crop-protection products. I think it’s starting to change through collaboration. We are working with Sumitomo on a new PPO-inhibitor product for both corn and soybeans. Commercialization will likely be in the late 2020s.  

SF: What is Bayer doing with biologicals? 

BR: Both legacy companies had big investments in the biological space. When you look at the new company, we spend more money than almost anyone else in the industry. What’s neat about it is that most of the focus from one side of the business was on helping crop efficiency (Bayer), and the other side of the business used biologicals for crop protection (Monsanto). We can now take advantage of the fact that we had two strategies that are now in one firm. 

SF Bio

Name: Bob Reiter

Title: Head of research and development for Bayer CropScience

Background: Reiter, who grew up in western Canada, holds a bachelor of science degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master of science and doctorate in plant breeding and plant genetics from the University of Wisconsin. He has nearly 30 years of experience in discovering, developing, and delivering research and development solutions in crop science. Prior to his current position, Reiter was the global vice president of research and development integration strategy at Monsanto.

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