New agreement licenses microorganism to boost corn, soybeans

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A recent exclusive license agreement between the University of Massachusetts Amherst and LidoChem, Inc., a New Jersey-based wholesale turf and agricultural nutrient supply firm, means a fungus-fighting bacterium discovered and developed by Haim Gunner, UMass Amherst professor emeritus of environmental sciences, will now be marketed nationally as part of an eco-management approach to plant disease protection.

Gunner, a co-founder of the environmental sciences department in the 1960s, first identified the bacterium Bacillus amyloliquifaciens as a contaminant in a laboratory experiment in the 1990s, when he was trying to grow a beneficial fungus. A post-doc noticed that the bacterium prevented fungal growth around it. They further tested and developed the microorganism’s ability to fight disease-causing fungi, and after 10 years of study and effort, Gunner and UMass Amherst successfully patented the use of the biological agent for suppressing pathogenic fungi.

B. amyloliquifaciens is a very effective seed treatment for soybeans, corn and potentially other crops, Gunner says. “It gives the plant an earlier start and provides early protection against pathogen attack.” One of a group of plant-growth-promoting rhizobacteria, it secretes a wide range of enzymes and growth stimulating hormones in the plant root zone, the rhizosphere, he adds, where it not only stimulates growth but protects roots from pathogens.

LidoChem, Inc. obtained a license from UMass Amherst to use B. amyloliquifaciens in its products as part of an ecosystem management approach. The company now distributes the microorganism to turf managers and agricultural growers among a number of products, and as a component of a proprietary plant soil treatment system. The university received its first royalty check for these products earlier this fiscal year.

The promise of marketing and promoting the bacterium as an integral part of an ecosystem management approach is very important to Gunner, who was already a pioneer of sustainable agriculture on the first Earth Day in 1970, looking for natural, biological ways to control agricultural pests without using environmentally toxic chemicals such as DDT and organophosphates.

“In looking for a commercial market for our bacterium, I wanted to insure that it wasn’t just thrust into a plant system in isolation, but as part of a sustainable mix,” he says.

Gunner is passionate about developing ecosystem-level approaches to crop and turf management because “what we have done to date is to subvert what happens in nature. A natural ecosystem results in climax population or biome, a self-sustaining system that uses all elements of its environment to stay healthy and functional over the long term,” he explains.

“Grassland such as we used to have on the Great Plains is a good example. There was no need to add fertilizer because the underlying soil sustained its growth, vast herds of buffalo supported themselves on it and fertilized with their droppings, which they stamped into the soil.”

But when humans came along they created “artificial biomes” like golf courses and cornfields, monocultures that provide “a banquet” for pests with no natural controls or predators, the scientist points out. Further, these unnatural systems requires constant infusions of water and nutrients brought from outside. “The mad race to sustain it produces pollution by excess nutrient runoff, with auxiliary damage from pesticides,” Gunner says. “Appropriate ecosystem management is one of my passions,” he adds.

In his current program of research and product development for LidoChem, Gunner is now testing B. amyloliquifaciens’ capacity to suppress nematodes, roundworms found in soil, that attack virtually every economically important crop. “So the future continues to open up for this organism and for generating revenues for the university.”

Fred Reinhart, director of the office of commercial ventures & intellectual property (CVIP) at UMass Amherst, says, “Dr. Gunner has worked closely with CVIP over the years and is a prime example of a dedicated and persistent individual. It took over a decade of hard work and dedication to see his idea become a reality, a commercial product that benefits society through sustainable agriculture. We are very happy that his efforts were ultimately successful.”

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