Mighty microbes: Bacteria being tapped to fight plant pests, boost production

Activists protest against the production of herbicides and food products made from genetically modified organisms outside Monsanto headquarters during its annual shareholders meeting in Creve Coeur, Missouri, on Jan. 30, 2015.Reuters

Soon, farmers may go to their local agricultural stores not to buy a bottle of pesticides but to pick up a load of microorganisms that will help them fight plant pests.

Big companies known to be involved in the production of pesticides, such as Monsanto and Bayer, are now funding experiments to discover how microbes, long known to help the human body against various diseases, can help boost plant production.

For instance, Pam Marrone of Marrone Bio Innovations based in Davis, California, has been trying to explore how microorganisms can serve as weapons against insects or weeds.

Marrone is currently experimenting on various colonies of microorganisms to determine which of them are best in killing plant-eating pests such as corn root worms, cabbage loopers, spider mites, beet army worms and green peach aphids.

Aside from this, Marrone Bio Innovations is also searching for microbes that are effective in killing weeds. At present, this firm is looking at turning a microorganism found in the soil of a garden in Japan from being a plant-killer to a potent weedkiller.

Marrone's main goal is to eventually bring all these discoveries to bigger companies for commercial distribution. She plans to submit a pile of data to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval later this year.

"I can go into a chemical distributor in the Central Valley of California and say, 'What's your greatest unmet need?' and honest to God, this chemical dealer will tell me it's organic weed control," she said.

Another California-based firm, Taxon Biosciences, is meanwhile experimenting on how to use microbes, which deliver nutrients to plants, as a means of increasing plant production, particularly corn.

"When you always find a microbe there when a plant is doing well, there might be something to that," scientist Matthew Ashby, founder of Taxon Biosciences, said.