May 12, 2005: A pair of new pesticides recently
registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
for use against plant-damaging fungi grew from University
of Idaho researcher Don Crawford's study of bacteria
found among linseed plant roots. The new pesticides
offer a non-toxic weapon against major fungal diseases
that cause extensive damage to greenhouse, nursery,
turf and agricultural crops.
According to company representatives, Natural
Industries' Actinovate SP and Micro 108
have been approved for use in organic production
by the USDA National Organic Program. Actinovate
SP is OMRI-listed, while Micro 108 has been
submitted to OMRI for review. As always,
double-check with your certifying agency
before using any new material. For product
labels and MSDS information visit www.naturalindustries.com.
Crawford, a microbiology professor and director of
the Environmental Science program, said that is the
beauty of putting bacteria to work against fungi. The
bacteria, which colonize the plants' roots, produce
chemical defenses at the specific points where the fungus
attacks, delivering microdoses of antibiotics to specific
targets at specific times.
With the investment and support of Houston-based Natural
Industries, two pesticide products recently won formal
approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Both rely on the specific strain of bacteria that Crawford
discovered attack a wide spectrum of root-damaging fungi.
As a result, production has soared at the small Moscow,
Idaho, spin-off company, Innovative BioSystems, which
produces the bacteria commercially.
In all, efforts by company founder Bill Kowalski, who
died three years ago, to market the product began more
than a decade ago. The business is now led by his son,
company president Matt Kowalski. "Without their
support and perseverance, this product would not have
reached the market," Crawford said.
Natural Industries markets Actinovate SP, the commercial
product, and shepherded the product through EPA registration,
a five-year effort. In January, the company's early
work produced a bonus. The closely-related product,
Actino-Iron, won EPA registration approval in January
months earlier than anticipated. "It was actually
a surprise because we were expecting it sometime this
summer. It's just in time for spring," Kowalski
The company's investment in the federal registration
process approached $500,000, Matt Kowalski said. "We
paid for everything on cash flow, which was a big testament
to the product. We were able to generate sales to not
only sustain the company, pay employees and satisfy
investors, but also to pay for our registration, which
is very expensive. It was pretty nerve-wracking through
"The real key was EPA registration because of the
inability to really talk about its biocontrol abilities
when you can only sell it as a soil amendment," Crawford
||"The real key was EPA registration
because of the inability to really talk about its
biocontrol abilities when you can only sell it as
a soil amendment."
When his father first traveled to the University of
Idaho, his interest was in using microbes to clean up
contaminated industrial sites. His interest shifted
to an agricultural product after visiting UI.
Kowalski's and Crawford's faith in the bacteria's ability
to combat fungi led to early seed and soil inoculants
that were based on tests that showed plants grew better
with help from the bacterium. But the company and its
distributors could not talk about the bacterium's abilities
as a pesticide without violating federal law. Extensive
testing and review are required by EPA to ensure the
environmental, consumer and worker safety of pesticides.
The specific strain that Crawford isolated and patented
with graduate student Hyung-Won Suh in 1995 is known
as Streptomyces lydicus WYEC108. The strain caught their
attention because it enhanced plant growth when added
to soil and fought common, economically damaging fungal
diseases of plants.
Fungicides, pesticides that target fungi, tend to be
toxic to animals because fungal cells are closer to
plants and animals than to bacteria, Crawford said.
That is the advantage of enlisting bacteria to provide
protection to plants' roots at the cellular level, serving
as factories to apply microdoses of fungicide where
they count the most.
The quest to develop the new pesticide will be featured
in the Society of Industrial Microbiology News in an
article by Crawford, Kowalski, and other principals
including Mark Roberts, the chief operating officer
of Innovative BioSystems in Moscow; Gene Merrell, UI
associate vice president for research and chief technology
transfer officer; and Lee A. Deobald, UI research associate
Now Crawford is studying bacteria found among sagebrush
roots as sources of new medical antibiotics. Bacteria
supply nearly two-thirds of the antibiotics used by
physicians but microbiologists have barely scratched
the surface in identifying potential sources of new
He decided to look among sagebrush roots for potential
miracle drugs because the plant is a common element
of the western landscapes he loves.
There's also a strong chance that a plant able to survive
some of the least hospitable habitats has something
a little extra working in its favor. Crawford believes
bacteria may help sagebrush thrive despite the constant
challenges of pathogens that defeat lesser plants.
Bill Loftus is science writer for the University of
Idaho. He can be reached at email@example.com.
University of Idaho Environmental Science Program director
Don Crawford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.