A Montana State University science discovery 18 years in the making could soon save farmers worldwide billions of dollars through disease prevention.
University researchers have discovered a way to turn on a plant's immune system, enabling it to fight diseases that would normally be fought with chemical pesticides. MSU's chemical-free discovery has been sub-leased to Certis USA, a global creator of biological farm products. MSU Scientist Barry Jacobsen said a commercial product could be on the market by early 2013.
Plant diseases brought on by fungus and bacteria cost American farmers billions in chemical pesticide treatments and diminished harvests. Ultimately, taxpayers shoulder a share of the burden as federally subsidized crop insurance is tapped to cover losses.
"What happens in a disease situation is the plant can't respond fast enough," Jacobsen said. "The disease gets the upper hand."
But, if the plant's immune system is activated before the disease materializes, the tables are turned. That's what Jacobsen discovered in 1994 while working in a sugar beet field near Sidney. The crop had been devastated by leaf spot, which area farmers had tried in vain to kill with chemical pesticides. Jacobsen and other researchers noticed a few select plants that seemed to fight off the disease. Studying 300 types of bacteria present on the healthy plants, Jacobsen discovered a helpful bacterium, "Bacillus mycoides isolate J, or Bmj."
The Bmj had activated the plant's NPR1 gene, which triggered a range of immune responses allowing the plant to fight off disease. The plant began generating hydrogen peroxide and the other components that cause cell walls to thicken, making them harder for the bacteria to attack. The plant then produces enzymes to attack the fungi and bacteria. Viruses also were battled back.
That it was the NPR1 gene the Bmj activated was crucial. NPR1 is a gene found in most plants, and most food crops, with the exception of peanuts, Jacobsen said. The common gene is what makes the MSU discovery important to a variety of plants worldwide.
Bmj is patented by Jacobsen, post-doctoral researcher Nina Zidack and Rebecca Bargabus-Larson, a former doctoral student.
Bmj isn't going to end the use of chemical pesticides. It should cut back on their use when combined with other disease control methods. It should also help home gardeners, small farmers, and organic farms, which cannot use chemical pesticides. Bmj isn't genetically modified. It should qualify for organic use.
In tests on Montana farms, Bmj successfully fought several types of crops and in doing so, improved yields where crop losses without Bmj were certain.
On Gary Broyles' farm near Rapelje, researches applied Bmj on five acres of spring wheat to tackle crown and root rot and did well. Much of the research for Bmj and other MSU projects is conducted on small acreages offered by Montana farmers wanting to improve state agriculture through research.
On Nick Schutter's potato farm near Manhattan, Jacobsen used Bmj to combat white mold, a constant problem that can claim 5 to 8 percent of a farm's seed potato crop annually.
"We see yield reductions with white mold and we also see quality reduction," Schutter said. "When we can treat the white mold and can control it, we see measurable increases in yields."
Schutter said the cost of managing white mold can cut deep into farm profits. The thought of reducing those costs, as well was increasing yields by as much as 1,500 pounds per acre is very attractive.
One of the reasons Bmj might hit the market early next year is that much of the testing needed to clear Bmj for use was done by Missoula-based Montana Microbial Products. That company could not afford to complete the required testing, which will be completed by Certis.