Biotechnology Battles Chemical Industry in Pesticide Market
Alternatives must compete in terms of cost, applicability
Tom Abate / SF Chronicle 29jan01
Pam Marrone is out to give germ warfare a good name.
Pill-shaped bacteria (upper left) ate the head of a much-larger fungal spore, halting its attack on a leaf, in this microscope image.
Photo courtesy AgraQuest
Marrone is the chief executive of AgraQuest Inc., a biotechnology firm in Davis (Yolo County) that uses beneficial bacteria to fight crop diseases. The idea is to use microbes to fight microbes, creating biopesticides that would compete with the chemical variety.
"We use natural bugs, no genetic engineering," Marrone said. "The biotechnology comes in knowing how to find the right natural predator, and then in knowing how to grow it."
Last summer, AgraQuest won state and federal approval to market an antifungal agent called Serende. That's the brand name for a strain of bacteria that AgraQuest scientists found in a handful of dirt from a Fresno farmyard.
Lab tests showed that the bacterium had an appetite for the fungus that causes bunch rot and mildew in grapes. At that point, AgraQuest went to work on finding a formula to grow the beneficial bug in industrial quantities.
Although the exact formula is proprietary and therefore secret, this is how AgraQuest goes about creating it. A flask of bacteria is dumped into a 10,000- gallon tank filled with a special food source. Forty-eight hours later, the gooey slime in the tank is harvested. To create a useable product, the bacterial concentrate is dried so that it becomes something resembling powdered chocolate milk.
"We put that powder into 24-pound bags and ship it to the farmer, who dumps it into a spray tank and applies it just like a chemical fertilizer," Marrone said. The product costs about $25 to $50 an acre, which she said is competitive with chemical fungicides.
AgraQuest is hardly alone in applying this low-impact form of biotechnology to agriculture. Last year, 30 small firms, including Bioscape in Petaluma and EcoSoil Systems in San Diego, formed the Biopesticide Industry Alliance. Marrone estimates biopesticide-makers accounted for $300 million in sales last year, about 1 percent of the $30 billion pesticide market.
Biopesticides aren't entirely new. For years, many organic farmers have used a bacterial pesticide called BT, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, to control a variety of pests. New biopesticide firms hope to expand beyond the organic market, using biotech production techniques to brew up natural insecticides cheap enough to compete with chemical products.
"Our whole focus has to be on lowering the cost of production," said James White, chief executive of Entomos, a Florida biopesticide firm.
White started in the bug business in the early 1990s, when he joined a now defunct Palo Alto firm called Biosys. A molecular biologist by training, White helped turn a certain type of nematode into a commercial insecticide. Nematodes are tiny worms, barely visible to the naked eye. Biosys managed to create a process to brew huge quantities of these creatures, and actually found some useful markets for this exotic biocide.
For instance, cranberry growers in Oregon and elsewhere found the nematodes could control the blights that afflicted their crops. But White said cranberry growers were in a unique position because no other commercial pesticide was available for their crop. Biosys wasn't able to develop other markets, because its nematode product was more costly than competing chemical sprays.
Now White is trying to develop biocides that can be used as widely as chemical pesticides.
One of his most exciting prospects is a strain of bacteria with a unique trait. They produce an enzyme that dissolves chitin, the material that forms the exoskeleton of insects. White said Entomos is in the early stages of developing this bacterium into a biopesticide that would attack a wide range of pests.
"What we want is a broad-spectrum biocide to compete with the broad- spectrum pesticides farmers are used to using," he said. "This way you have the biggest possible market."
The biopesticide industry has gotten a boost from government regulations. The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 has led to the gradual phasing out of a variety of chemical pesticides. That has set off a scramble to find replacements. But biopesticides won't necessarily own the field.
"The chemical industry has gotten very good at developing new compounds that kill insects without lingering in the soil or causing toxic side effects, " White said. "Biopesticides are going to have to compete with them on price and performance."
That's where biotechnology comes in. "Each microbe has its own persnickety character," Marrone said. "It takes a lot of know-how at every step of the way to pick microbes that do the job economically."
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