Economy & Politics

Interview “This is not an abstract technical topic, but the biorevolution”

Matthias Berninger, Head of Public Affairs, Science & Sustainability for Bayer AG in Washington, D.C.imago images / tagesspiegel

Matthias Berninger has been Head of Public Relations and Sustainability for the Bayer Group in Washington since the beginning of 2019. His core tasks include lobbying for green genetic engineering, precision breeding with the help of genetic scissors such as CRISPR-Cas. When you heard that the Nobel Prize went to two researchers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, what was your first reaction?

MATTHIAS BERNINGER: I was really happy. I had hoped that this would be the decision this year. The Nobel Prize Committee had had them on the list for a long time, but hesitated because it was not entirely clear who discovered what.

How significant is the discovery of the two?

Understanding what genes do is extremely complex. But what Charpentier and Doudna have achieved is to edit the DNA more precisely and thus change genes. This is the start of a new era because this technology finally merges the subject of biology and information technology. For me this is comparable to the discovery of radioactivity, for which Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. Gene editing has advanced rapidly over the past decade. CRISPR-Cas is almost the grandmother of current technology.

What will change with these awards? Do you expect a boost for green genetic engineering? A reputation gain?

I hope that the award ceremony will spark innovation in Europe. Europeans have to make a quick decision whether to promote these new technologies or remain skeptical – and promote technology prohibition. This is a decision that is more important than anything else for the future of Europe.

How come?

When printing was invented, the center of the scientific world, then Istanbul, decided that they would not participate in the invention of printing and forbade the use of the technology. That was the starting point for the end of the supremacy of the Ottoman Empire. And Europe runs the risk of making the same mistake historically.

As a representative of one of the largest agrochemical / pharmaceutical companies, you have to say that. Green genetic engineering is the core business of their agricultural division – especially since Bayer bought Monsanto. Of course you don’t like it when Europe remains so persistently skeptical.

We still get a lot of criticism for this large investment. But yes, the 60 billion euros that we spent on the purchase of Monsanto are based on the insight that technologies like CRISPR-Cas are revolutionizing our business and benefiting mankind. There is no other company in Europe, perhaps even in the world, that is so closely interwoven with this technology and is therefore so prepared to belong to the disruptors and not to be disrupted. Even if the criticism we receive for the will to transform is painful, these innovations give us gigantic leeway.

Specific example, please.

The cultivated plant maize is a prime example of agriculture. With the help of gene editing, Bayer has also developed a new maize that has deeper roots and does not grow as tall. For example, it survived the hurricane over Louisiana while the traditional corn popped off. We’re revolutionizing the way corn is grown again. Whether it’s huge greenhouses in Arizona, where we simulate several seasons, or the use of huge amounts of data: we make corn resilient to storms and drought, reduce the use of fertilizers, and this genetically modified corn stores more CO2 in the earth thanks to the deeper roots. Another example: together with Oxitech, we have just presented a genetically modified moth of the autumn army worm insect into which we have incorporated a kind of family planning. This insect massively destroys crops in Asia and Africa. We give the plants a chance to survive against the insect. These are technologies that actually help people and drive business.

It sounds too good … but many – especially in this country – see great risks and do not believe in the promise of salvation.

The majority of Germans are skeptical. Monsanto’s behavior in the past has destroyed a lot of trust and contributed to skepticism. But Monsanto has also developed an agriculture that can be operated in a more climate-friendly manner. In addition, genetic engineering also offers many new possibilities in medicine. There are about thousands of hereditary diseases that can be traced back to a single incorrectly programmed gene. One example is sickle cell disease, a brutal disease. Researchers have managed to develop gene-editing-based therapies for this disease. As a Bavarian, we are also working on researching heart disease and genetic eye diseases. With Leaps, Bayer has an investment unit that invests early in companies that bring these technologies to market. There is also Bluerock Therapeutics, a company that the researcher Doudna co-founded. They are working there on cell therapies to combat Parkinson’s. Because we were very impressed by the progress made, Bayer took over the company in full last year. A few weeks ago we also created a new “Cell and Gene Therapy” business unit, as we are convinced that these technologies will prevail.

What exactly should change in the EU?

The EU should allow gene editing in agriculture. And generally invest more in research for green technology. This is not an abstract technical issue, but the biorevolution. Europe has to decide whether to be at the forefront of the revolution or to run after it. The biggest mistake we can make, like the Imams in Istanbul in 1515, to forbid printing on pain of death. And now if the pressure on the people who work on genetic engineering stops. then we all won the Nobel Prize a little too.

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