BOZEMAN, Mont. - 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 toolbox," 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