Recruiting microbes to do the dirty work
By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
April 11, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Pam Marrone keeps her enemies close. They are in refrigerators and jars all over the company's offices.
In a room of flying insects and earthy smells, she holds up a plastic container and points to the roots of a tomato plant that look like they are infected with boils. The lumps, formed by parasitic worms known as root-knot nematodes, cause about $1 billion in crop damage annually.
"They are like a cancer," Marrone said. "Just about every crop you can talk about--bananas, grapes, cotton--gets affected by nematodes."
Marrone first became interested in insects as a kid in Connecticut and later studied them at Cornell University and North Carolina State University, but her hobbies have become a mission. Today, she is founder and president of
Organic biopesticides comprise only a small fraction of the overall $30 billion pesticide market, but they are growing rapidly--22 percent a year thanks to technological, regulatory and market forces. By 2010, biopesticides could account for more than $1 billion in revenues, according to some estimates. Other companies in the field include Valent Biosciences, Suterra, Certis and Nutra Park.
The business has come a long way from previous years when biopesticide scientists were viewed as modern-day snake oil salesmen. A number of start-ups formed in the 1990s were based on sound science from university labs but cratered in the dot-com meltdown.
AgraQuest, which has $10 million in annual sales today, was one of many companies that, back then, canceled plans to go public. But now new investors such as Texas Pacific Group Ventures are aiming to rapidly grow the company?s revenue by expanding relationships with farmers and retail outlets like Wal-Mart.
"We have a plan for very dramatic growth. There is a tremendous opportunity," said Bill McGlashan, managing director at Texas Pacific. "The challenge now is execution."
Natural pesticides exist all over the world. The microbe for root-knot nematodes studied at AgraQuest was discovered in an Eastern European creek by scientists once associated with a bioweapons lab in Siberia. The company's first product, Serenade, derives from a microorganism found in a peach orchard near Fresno, Calif., where a farmer had noted that a particular strand of trees never got hit with the dreaded brown rot. And the active ingredient in a fungicide called Sonata is a patented strain of Bacillus pumilus, originally found in a garden in Micronesia.
One of the more intriguing specimens for commercial exploitation is a novel fungus called Muscador, discovered by Montana State University professor emeritus Gary Strobel. The microorganism, which lives naturally in the bark of a type of spice tree found in Central America and other tropical regions, emits a cocktail of about 30 gases that kills a variety of pests. Muscador-based products will likely start coming out this year.
"It's effective in killing most plant pathogens," Strobel said. "It can even be effective in treating soil."
Muscador, which dies without spreading spores, could also be sprayed on drywall and building materials to kill mold spores sealed inside crawl spaces and walls during construction.
Because they are natural substances, biopesticides can go where chemicals cannot. Organic farmers, for instance, can't spray chemical pesticides without losing their organic status, but they can deploy biopesticides. Thus, that familiar loose-leaf lettuce in the organic bins at the grocery store was probably sprayed with products like Agraquest's Serenade or Novodor from Valent, which also makes organic mosquito repellent and fruit-growth enhancers.
Roughly 70 percent of California's peach and apricot crop, which can be plagued with moths, are treated with biopesticides from Suterra. The company sells a suite of products that mimic the pheromones secreted by female moths: Males sniff out the pheromones to find the females, but because the substance is sprayed all over the fields, they get confused and die before fertilizing any eggs.
Even if crops are not expected to be labeled as organic, biopesticides have other advantages. Regulations often prevent farmers from spraying chemicals about 30 days before harvest, but biopesticides can be used up to the last minute, resulting in greater crop yields. Workers can also return to the fields far more quickly after a biopesticide spray than if chemicals were used.
"The chemical pesticides they (farmers) have been using have become less effective or have been regulated away from them," said Tom Larsen, Suterra's director of product development.