BOZEMAN - A Montana State University-licensed technology is being used in an agricultural product that industry leaders are touting as one of the best on the market.
LifeGard, a biological pesticide from Certis USA, was named the 2017 Best New Biological Product at the Agrow Awards in London on Oct. 30. A week earlier, LifeGard won second place for the 2017 Bernard Blum Award for Biocontrol Product of the Year in Basel, Switzerland, at the Annual Biocontrol Industry Meeting organized by the International Biocontrol Manufacturers Association.
Both awards recognize LifeGard as the first biopesticide that works exclusively by inducing a plant's resistance to diseases, including fungi and viruses.
MSU Professor Emeritus Barry Jacobsen discovered the bacteria strain, Bacillus mycoides isolate J, or BmJ. Bacillus mycoides is a common bacterium found in soil and plant samples worldwide, while isolate J is unique in that it induces resistance in plants. BmJ is the active ingredient in LifeGard.
Jacobsen originally isolated the bacterium in 1994 from a field of sugar beets near Sidney that had been devastated by a catastrophic Cercospora leaf spot outbreak.
Now retired from the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU's College of Agriculture, Jacobsen said he is pleased that more than two decades of research has paid off in a way that benefits agriculture.
"It is a real honor after 20-plus years of working on this new method of plant disease control that it is being successfully used by growers and that the international biological control industry has recognized this as a breakthrough," said Jacobsen who also served as associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station.
LifeGard is different from other commercial Bacillus-based biopesticides in that BmJ does not kill or compete with plant pathogens. Instead, it triggers a plant's natural defense mechanisms without damaging the plant or impacting crop yield or appearance, Jacobsen said.
This is important, he said, because pathogens can "fight back" against those other biopesticides and become resistant to fungicides or bactericides, which can lead to crop losses for farmers.
"By inducing plant defenses, LifeGard suppresses infection and disease caused by bacteria, many fungi and some viruses," Jacobsen said. "Because many plant genes are activated, it is unlikely that these pathogens will be able to become resistant, such as has occurred with several conventional fungicides and bactericides."
Because of this distinction, the Fungicide Resistance Action Committee, or FRAC, recently placed BmJ in a newly created mode-of-action group called "Microbial Inducers of Plant Resistance." FRAC is a specialist technical group of CropLife International that provides fungicide-resistance management guidelines with the goal of prolonging the effectiveness of at-risk fungicides and works to limit crop losses should resistance occur, according to its website.
Before MSU's TechLink licensed BmJ to Certis USA in 2011, BmJ underwent 20 years of field testing, where it was shown to be effective in reducing incidence and severity of diseases, including potato virus Y in seed potatoes. In a few cases, BmJ was proven as effective as a chemical fungicide in reducing disease, such as grapevine downy mildew and early blight of potato and tomato.
According to Certis USA, BmJ's broader value is as a supplement to disease management programs and for fungicide-resistance management when mixed or rotated with conventional fungicides and bactericides. When applied as a preventative measure before the onset of disease then included with one or more subsequent applications, BmJ has been shown to maintain high levels of disease control with fewer fungicide applications.
LifeGard was registered for crop use in the U.S. and Canada in late 2016 and was launched on a limited scale in both countries in 2017 for use in conventional and organic crops.
In the U.S., LifeGard is labeled as targeting certain diseases in crops including almonds, brassicas, carrots, citrus, cucurbits, fruiting vegetables, grapes, leafy vegetables, legumes, pecans, pome fruit, potatoes, sugar and garden beets, and tobacco.
"When I first started working with this I thought we really had something special with which to protect sugar beets and potatoes," Jacobsen said. "Subsequent research by Certis discovered it could do more than I ever dreamed. It is so gratifying to see how this will help protect so many different crops around the world."
During his time at MSU, Jacobsen's research focused on the development of disease management strategies and integrated pest management programs for crops grown in Montana, particularly potatoes and sugar beets. In addition to his research, Jacobsen taught upper level courses on fungal disease, plant disease management and control, and advanced plant pathology. He also worked to educate Montana growers about diseases prevalent in row crops, such as corn, potatoes, dry beans and sugar beets.
Michael Giroux, head of MSU's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology lauded the success of Jacobsen's work and MSU's research enterprise.
"The successful translation of Dr. Jacobsen's research into a commercial product useful to organic and conventional agriculture is a tremendous example of the value of basic research being conducted at Montana State," Giroux said.