Agricultural biotechnology doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as genetically engineered organisms, and the president of AgraQuest, a manufacturer of biological fungicides, explained why at a recent conference in Seaside on considering biotechnology potentials for Monterey County.
Pamela G. Marrone said developing biopesticides is capital-intensive itself, but it doesn't demand nearly the bankroll to get conventional pesticides or GMOs to market.
It takes three years and about $6 million to develop a biopesticide, she said, versus up to ten years and $100 million to develop a conventional chemical pesticide.
She drew a distinction between the scope of her company, which targets pest control for small fruits and vegetables ("California-type crops"), and manufacturing giants who aim at the massive corn and soybean acreages of the Midwest.
The company's first product, Serenade, is a biofungicide for use on grapes and cucurbits and certain leafy vegetables. She said it activates the plant's immune system and at the same time attacks the target pathogen. Other products for control of fungal, insect, and nematode pests are in development.
Marrone said her objective is to find biopesticides for farm, home, or public health pest management that can equal or better the performance and reliability of chemical products.
"Our products are completely non-GMO and are naturally derived," she said, adding that AgraQuest has avoided GMOs because it fears the regulatory hassles and consumer resistance would be too great. Furthermore, she said, in no way could they compete with large pesticide manufacturers.
She recalled starting up the company in Davis in 1995 in a 1,300-square-foot, rented building having wet-lab space essential for AgraQuest's processes. A significant resource for the company has been the availability of graduate students around the University of California, Davis.
AgraQuest collects samples of lichen or soil compost from nature and isolates the bacteria and other microorganisms that show pesticidal properties. The microbes are then grown out on a small scale though a fermentation process.
"Then," Marrone said, "we test them against a range of five insects, mites, and nematodes, and six plant pathogens that are important pests. Using a robotic system, we can test about 200 microbes per week."
After preparing a microbial "broth," AgraQuest breaks it down to learn what makes it pesticidal. Early on, the process eliminates sources of toxins that would not be allowed in the registration process.
"In the same way as pharmaceutical companies find microorganism to produce drugs such as penicillin, we find microorganisms that produce pesticides," she said.
Next is growing the microorganism in quantity through fermentation. In addition to small volume operations, the company is also bringing on a plant with a capacity of nearly 5,000 liters to provide enough product for use in the field. Inert ingredients added to the active ingredient are selected for good spray dispersal and adhesion to leaves.
Marrone's company has tested about 15,000 microbes since it was founded, but they hit pay dirt with one comparatively soon after testing 712 microbes. That strain, Bacillus subtilis, found in an orchard in Fresno County and identified as QST-713, was to become their Serenade product.
Marrone said that is a contrast to the 100,000 to 200,000 compounds that must be tested before a new chemical pesticide can be developed.
AgraQuest's next useful candidate wasn't found, however, until after its test routines numbered more than 2,000. "Nature has proven to us it is a very rich source of biodiversity, and we have found more products than we can develop ourselves," she said.
The products developed by AgraQuest are registered by the Biopesticide Solutions Division of EPA, the same unit having control of registrations of genetically engineered crops.
The regulatory process is similar to that for conventional chemical products and includes a battery of toxicological tests. Marrone said Serenade bacterial fungicide took 18 months for the company to develop after it was collected in an orchard in Fresno County. It took another 20 months before EPA granted registration.
Another microbe AgraQuest discovered and is testing now, she said, combines with Bacillus thuringiensis for 10 times the potency of Bt alone against armyworm caterpillars.
"We feel we've only scratched the surface with the type of technology we're developing," she said, adding that only one percent of all microbes have been described.
"And only seven percent of the pesticides, compared to more than 60 percent of the drugs, have been derived from natural sources. So our success is a testament to what the natural world has put out there."
Marrone said she has nothing against GMOs and once headed up a GMO research program for Monsanto. "But for me at AgraQuest, it was a easy decision not to do anything with genetic engineering because of the huge risk it would have been for our company. We can do it much easier and faster by not dealing with GMOs."