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Ralf Nauen: From Child Bug Collector to Insect Researcher

How do insect pests develop resistance to crop protection agents? Dr. Ralf Nauen is on the hunt for answers.

I’m just as fascinated by my work as I was 30 years ago.

Dr. Ralf Nauen studies resistance mechanisms in crop pests.

When caterpillars, beetles or aphids attack fields and no crop protection agent can stop them, it’s time for me to step in. All the time, new, powerful insecticides are being developed, but, unfortunately, insect pests can adapt to them. This means they can rapidly develop biological mechanisms that make insecticides less effective. As an insect toxicologist at Bayer, my focus is these resistance mechanisms in crop pests. Alongside my team, I study how modern insecticides end up becoming ineffective against some of these voracious insects. It’s an urgent issue: When this happens, there’s a risk of massive crop losses. Overall, the development of insect resistance is one of the greatest challenges facing modern farming.

I see it as our responsibility to develop knowledge about this situation. Today, many external researchers get in touch with us because of our proactive approach. As a result, we’re establishing an outstanding network – and we’re all gaining valuable new insights. I’m proud to say that our resistance research unit is one of the top world addresses in the field of pest control.

For the life of bees

My colleagues and I have long focused on this topic. For my own doctoral thesis, I studied how insects absorb, metabolize and eliminate certain active ingredients. Today, thirty years later, I’m just as fascinated by this work. The differences are that the research questions have changed, and the responsibility has increased. One important requirement, for instance, is that insecticides must not harm bees. Pollinators like bees can also suffer from the effects of an insecticide if it’s used incorrectly. To protect bees, we study what distinguishes them, on a molecular level, from other insects. An insecticide’s active ingredients must attack target structures in insect pests in order to avoid harming beneficial insects like bees. When we know what these target structures are, then we can subject crop protection substances to much better tests to determine if they’re safe for bees. As a result, we can develop modern insecticides that have a more targeted effect.

Research, whether it’s in a lab or on a field, is a never-ending process. Working with my team in a lab is my professional passion. And field research isn’t just a job; nature has always been my hobby. As a child, I was fascinated by insects, and I spent a lot of time outdoors collecting specimens. Today, I combine this recreational activity with another passion of mine, hiking, with my wife. I’m always on the go.

CV DR. RALF NAUEN

1984 Laboratory technician biology (Bayer AG, Leverkusen, Germany)

1993 National Diploma in Chemistry (Cologne, Germany)

2002 PhD, School of Biological Sciences, University of Portsmouth, UK; Thesis on insect toxicology and pharmacokinetics of systemic insecticides

2004 Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society (London, UK)

2009-current Principal Scientist, Bayer (Laboratory Head in Pest Control Biology)

2013 Fellow of the Entomological Society of the U.S.A. (Austin, USA)

2014 International Award of the American Chemical Society for Research in Agrochemicals for exceptional research on modes of action and resistance to insecticides and acaricides (San Francisco, USA)

2015-current Lecturer at the University of Bonn (Germany), Agricultural Entomology and Nematology

2016 Bayer Publication Award

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