New pesticide relies on bacterium to fight root-damaging fungi

Microbiological research at the University of Idaho lays the groundwork for development of bio-fungicides

By Bill Loftus

MOSCOW, Idaho, 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.

NOP approved

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

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 said.

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 years."

"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."
"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 said.

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 scientist.

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 drugs.

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 University of Idaho Environmental Science Program director Don Crawford can be reached at

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