David Chittick spends a lot of time on the golf course these days, working hard—not on his swing, but searching for Japanese beetle grubs nestled under the grass.
Chittick, president of Fairfax Biological Laboratories, Inc., based in Clinton Corners, New York, looks for heavy infestations—about 25 to 30 grubs per square foot—and often finds them on golf courses. He collects the grubs from the soil and brings them back to his laboratory, using them to mass-produce a bacterium that causes milky spore disease in the beetle pests.
The bacterium, Bacillus papillae, naturally attacks Japanese beetles. It infects the beetles' blood and eventually weakens and kills them.
Fairfax Biologicals has been producing these natural bacteria—which it markets under the name Doom—since 1945. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Samuel R. Dutky pioneered methods to culture the organism after researchers discovered it in New Jersey in the 1930's.
Chittick says the milky spore product is one of the oldest biological control products around. His company has produced between 15,000 and 55,000 pounds of the milky spore powder each year.
This is just one of many examples of private companies picking up on USDA research and producing natural products that farmers, gardeners, and others can use on pests.
Biological control is a key part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which also uses crop rotation, resistant cultivars, pheromones, and other biologically based strategies to keep crop pests in check.
"The idea is to hold chemical pesticide use to a minimum," says Ray Carruthers, national program leader for biological control for USDA's Agricultural Research Service. "ARS and USDA have a long history of working on IPM solutions to pest problems."
Indeed, more than a century ago, the pioneering USDA entomologist C.V. Riley understood the importance of biological control. In his 1881-82 report, Riley wrote that "the work of enemies and parasites has been indicated sufficiently at least to show their importance and the danger of interfering with their operations by means of half remedies."
Riley was referring specifically to natural enemies of scale insects that were attacking oranges in the late 1800's. But his word's apply to virtually all natural enemies of crop pests.
Biologicals Are Good Business
Private companies have recognized the commercial payoffs. In recent years, more biological control products have been developed, Carruthers notes, as environmental concerns have forced companies to take a closer look at nematodes, bacteria, fungi, pheromones, parasitic wasps, and other natural enemies for controlling crop pests.
"We've turned the corner," says Stefan Jaronski, senior scientist at Mycotech Corp., of Butte, Montana. "There does seem to be more willingness to use biocontrols."
In mid-1995, ARS and Mycotech signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to develop a fermentation method for mass-producing a natural fungus to control the sweet potato whitefly. The CRADA was the 500th that ARS has entered into with private industry since the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 took effect.
"We estimate that about 40 percent of our CRADA's involve IPM or biological control," says Richard M. Parry, Jr., who heads the ARS Office of Technology Transfer. "Often it is small, rural companies that are working with us to develop new IPM products for the marketplace."
Mycotech is a good example of such a small company. It employs about 20 people, including five working on biopesticides.
"Because of the size of our company, we'd never be able to do this without cooperation with ARS," Jaronski says.
In the CRADA signed in July, Mycotech will work with ARS scientist Mark A. Jackson at Peoria, Illinois, to test a strain of Paecilomyces fumosoroseus—a fungal biocontrol agent.
Jackson developed a unique liquid culture fermentation process that Mycotech will field-test and help fine-tune for use on a commercial scale.
Mycotech has been working on another biocontrol project with ARS scientists in the Biological Pest Control Research Unit at Weslaco, Texas, where Carruthers worked before moving to the agency's National Program Staff in Beltsville, Maryland. It involves the fungus Beauveria bassiana, which also infects sweet potato whiteflies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved the product for commercial use against the whitefly, which attacks more than 600 plants worldwide and has caused losses of more than $250 million a year in Texas, Florida, and California alone. According to Jaronski, the B. bassiana product registered by ERA is also effective against other pests, including aphids, mealy bugs, pear psylla, thrips, and leafhoppers.
Jaronski says one reason companies are taking a closer look at biological control products is the cost of developing them.
Industry estimates that it costs $1-2 million to develop a new biological product, compared to $40-70 million for a new agrichemical, he says. A big factor in that expense is toxicological tests that lake from 5 to 7 years for a new agrichemical, but as little as 3 months for a biological.
Marshaling Nematodes, Yeasts, and Bacteria, Too
Another biological product making its way to the marketplace is a nematode called Steinernema riobravis, a natural enemy of pink bollworms, corn earworms. and fall armyworms, among others.
An ARS research team led by Jimmy R. Raulston at Weslaco discovered the nematode, which carries a bacteria that infects the pest larva or pupa and kills the insect within 24 to 48 hours.
"The nematode acts like a missile," says Ramon Georgis, vice president for research and development at Biosys, Inc. The company, based at Columbia, Maryland, worked cooperatively with ARS to develop the nematode and has a license to make a commercial product that will be part of the company's Vector line, Georgis says.
Biosys started selling the nematode-based products commercially in 1994-95, and Georgis says sales for golf courses and citrus groves have been "excellent so far."
This winter, another new biological control agent is expected to make an impact in postharvest citrus production. Ecogen, Inc., based in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, worked with ARS in developing ASPIRE, a biofungicide that was approved by EPA in early 1995.
ASPIRE is made from the yeast Candida oliophila, discovered by ARS scientists Charles L. Wilson and Michael E. Wisniewski, both at the Appalachian Fruit Research Laboratory in Kearneysville, West Virginia, and by Edo Chalutz and Samir Drobi of the Volcani Institute in Israel. The yeast, isolated from tomato peel, is a natural enemy of fungi that cause citrus and other fruits to rot during storage.
Timothy B. Johnson, director of product development for Ecogen, says ASPIRE works by outcompeting the disease-causing organisms for space and nutrients at wound sites on the fruit.
In packinghouse tests, ASPIRE has been effective for normal storage periods. He expects the product to be launched commercially during the 1995-96 winter season.
"By January 1996, we should have hundreds of thousands of tons of fruit treated with ASPIRE," Johnson says.
Within 2 to 3 years, ASPIRE could account for 25 to 35 percent of postharvest citrus treatment. "This could be very significant—an excellent example of ARS technology reaching commercial use," he says.
Yet another postharvest control—also for citrus—called Bio-Save 11, has been approved by EPA.
Isolated from apples by ARS plan pathologist Wojciech J. Janisiewicz, at Kearneysville, Bio-Save 11 contains the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, which fights storage rots on apples, pears, and citrus. EcoScience of Worcester, Massachusetts, is licensed to produce the product.
"We're continuing to work with these companies and others on environmentally friendly pest control," says Parry. "Every success helps create more interest—there's a multiplier effect at work. So we expect to see more products hit the marketplace in the coming months."—By Sean Adams, ARS.
"Biologicals Hit the Marketplace " was published in the January 1996 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.