BOZEZMAN – There is a vial of little blue pellets in Barry Jacobsen’s lab. Its contents, a bacterium taken from a few healthy leaves in a northeast Montana sugar beet field overrun with disease, could save farmers around the world millions of dollars each year.
Since Jacobsen isolated it in 1994 during a catastrophic Cercospora leaf spot outbreak near Sidney, the bacterium - Bacillus mycoides isolate J, or BmJ - has shown impressive abilities. It has proven effective in fighting a variety of plant diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses. BmJ is a biological control agent, as opposed to an industrial chemical used as a pesticide.
“I’d always been looking to develop a viable biological control product that would be beneficial to people growing a range of crops,” said Jacobsen, a professor of plant sciences and plant pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture. “And I always considered that if I could do that, my career would have meant something.”
After years of academic research, an initial U.S. patent process and licensing to Missoula-based start-up Montana Microbial Products Inc., BmJ was recently sublicensed to Certis USA, a top manufacturer of biopesticides worldwide. Based in Columbia, Md., Certis plans to market its BmJ-based products around the globe.
“We think it will be an important tool in the farmer/grower’s tool box,” said Certis CEO Jow-Lih Su, who is overseeing work on BmJ at Certis. “And biological disease control that works with systemic acquired resistance represents an area of the market that we are very interested in and we think the trends there are really very good.”
Jacobsen agreed that there has been a push for ways to control plant diseases using fewer industrial chemicals in agriculture.
The lack of a biological approach to a particular fungal pathogen - Cercospora leaf spot - was the reason Jacobsen found himself in that Sidney sugar beet field in 1994, where crops had been largely wiped out due to the disease.
Despite spending millions on aerial applications of fungicides, the Sidney-area sugar beet farmers were still losing their crops. To their dismay, growers had found Cercospora leaf spot infections showing the first signs of resistance to the fungicides. Jacobsen knew that resistance was likely to grow. A new solution was needed.
Jacobsen and his fellow researchers at the time had a hunch the solution lay in the very fields so broadly attacked by the leaf spot fungus. Though the disease had done enormous damage, there were still some healthy plants in the field.
Something about those plants helped them fend off the disease. What was it?
The group of researchers isolated more than 300 bacteria found on the healthy leaves.
They were a looking for one that was special. Jacobsen found it in Bacillus mycoides isolate J (the J marked its place in the team’s A-B-C list of different bacteria).
BmJ did something amazing. It turned on one particular gene – called the NPR1 gene – that is found in most plants. When the NPR1 gene is turned on, it sets in motion a whole range of defenses for the plant, a process called induced resistance.
“Within five minutes of that bacillus spore being on the plant leaf, the plant knows it’s there and it starts its defense reactions,” Jacobsen said. “It reacts by producing hydrogen peroxide and some other things and this thickens cell walls and makes it more difficult for a pathogen to infect. Within a day it starts to produce enzymes that attack fungi and bacteria. And it’s very effective on viruses as well, but so far we don’t understand how that happens.”
Since the plant exhibits no physical signs that BmJ has permeated its outer tissue, the question of how an immune response gets triggered is mysterious, Jacobsen said. Sprinkle almost any amount of BmJ on any location on a plant and a signal is sent, activating the NPR1 gene throughout the entire plant.
“For any plant that has this NPR1 gene, this bacillus is going to turn it on and we should get some level of disease control,” Jacobsen said.
Nina Zidack, director of the MSU Potato Lab, said BmJ offers a new chapter in biological control because it covers such a variety of crops and diseases, in particular viruses.
Zidack was a post-doctoral researcher when she joined the BmJ team shortly after its discovery. She is listed on MSU’s patent as a co-inventor of BmJ, along with Jacobsen and former doctoral student Rebecca Bargabus-Larson.
“The ability for potato growers to have another tool in limiting the spread and also the increase of viruses in their crops is really important,” Zidack, said. “This really is a tool that doesn’t exist in the marketplace today.”
While the technology is unlikely to be a magic bullet that will eliminate the use of chemical agents, it should have a broad impact for commercial farmers. When used in an integrated approach with other disease-fighting measures, Jacobsen said BmJ should provide protection that is “very stable and predictable.”
Jacobsen added that Montana farmers growing potatoes, sugar beets and even wheat could use BmJ in an integrated disease-control program that would save money with reduced use of fungicides and other pesticides.
BmJ is also likely to find a niche with small farmers and home gardeners, Jacobsen said.
“It really does have unique implications because it’s naturally occurring, it’s never been genetically modified, and it should be labeled as available for organic gardeners,” Jacobsen said.
“Certainly my first hope was for a Montana company to take it to the finish line,” Jacobsen said. “I think it would have been a boost for the state’s economy. But because of the size of capital investment needed to cover the final steps of the process it was not possible. So, of course I’m extremely pleased that Certis is involved at this point.”
Cliff Bradley, whose company Montana Microbial Products licensed BmJ from the university in 2003, echoed Jacobsen’s appreciation that Certis had sublicensed the technology. When BmJ-based products hit the market - no launch date has been announced - MSU and Jacobsen, along with his co-inventors, and Montana Microbial Products, as the original licensee, all will receive royalties based on the global sales Certis generates.
“Because we’d done a lot of work in microbial pest management in agriculture, we were the right company to take Barry Jacobsen’s very promising research and turn it to something that can go into a bottle that a farmer can pour into sprayer,” Bradley said. “But the next step, by the time you get through the EPA process, well, Certis will probably be into it at close to a million dollars.”
Despite receiving a helping hand via a research-and-commercialization grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, Bradley said raising the kind of capital needed to obtain the necessary regulatory registrations in the U.S. and abroad was a stumbling block for Montana Microbial Products, as it tends to be for many small Montana companies.
Mahurin said that Montana Microbial Products is an excellent example of a Montana company picking up MSU’s research, while Certis is the best possible company to put BmJ into a global product line.
“Cliff Bradley is serial entrepreneur and he’s just the right kind of person to advance this technology,” Mahurin said. “He really worked hard and put it in position for someone like Certis to come along.”
As for Certis, Mahurin said MSU was fortunate to have such a capable partner moving Jacobsen’s invention into the final legs of the commercialization journey.
“This is one of the most exciting technologies we’ve licensed and MSU is very proud that Certis is involved,” Mahurin said. “They are the last piece in the puzzle to get us to the market. And it’s great to have a home run for MSU that is an ag technology that will help farmers in our own state - that’s icing on the cake.”
Jacobsen agreed, saying it meant a lot that all the countless hours of work on BmJ over the years would culminate in putting those little blue pellets where they could help farmers grow better crops.
“You always have to remember what the farmer needs,” Jacobsen said.