Bangalore: In search of greener pesticides, a team of biochemists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) here, has discovered a new microorganism that can produce large quantities of a popular bioinsecticide to fight pests, which affect major crops in India, including cotton, wheat and maize.
The fungus, Aspergillus terreus, has been isolated from Indian soils. It can produce spinosyns, one of the most popular bioinsecticides today.
Multinational agrochemical firm, Dow AgroSciences Llc., has a global monopoly on spinosyn.
“This is an alternate organism, which can produce spinosyn at a much lower cost and with better efficacy,” said Ram Rajsekharan, a professor of biochemistry at IISc, who led the research. He added that the bioinsecticide is particularly effective against Helicoverpa armigera, a dreaded cotton pest in India.
Dow produces spinosyn by the fermentation of a bacterium, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, which was collected from soil in an abandoned rum distillery on a Caribbean island.
“This is the most widely used product in its category and has a worldwide market in excess of $1 billion (Rs3,977 crore),” said Venkatesh Devanur, founder of AgriLife, a biopesticide company in Hyderabad, which sells live microorganisms as spores for crop protection.
“Spinosyn has a very large opportunity both in Indian and overseas market,” Devanur added, cautioning that the IISc research needs to be tested in the field before it can be commercialized.
IISc researchers say that while they may have discovered the organism serendipitously, they have since rigorously pursued the science to ensure that its commercialization is not difficult.
“We are talking to ITC Ltd, but we are also open to other companies exploring this research for Indian fields,” said Rajsekharan, who has filed US and Indian patents after depositing the organism at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh, an international repository for patent deposits.
What about talking to Dow?
If they do, “the technology will get killed,” says Rajsekharan, matter-of-factly.
The research and development head of Dow AgroSciences India Pvt. Ltd in Mumbai said he was hearing about the development for the first time, and declined to comment as he is not authorized to do so.
India loses about 30% of its crops to pests every year and of the 180 million ha of land under cultivation in the country, barely one-fourth is protected against pests, according to Agrochemical Policy Group, an industry body in New Delhi.
Biopesticides, which are active at low concentrations and degrade quickly without harming the ecology, are rapidly becoming popular in the country. “Of the Rs3,500 crore Indian pesticide market, Rs2,000 crore is insecticides, of which biopesticides are one of the fastest growing segment,” said Devanur.
In terms of commercialization, synthesizing spinosyn from fungus is not very expensive.
“The process technology used in fermenting bacteria is more expensive than that used in fermenting fungus,” said C.S. Vivek Babu, a researcher at Rajsekharan’s lab.
Moreover, he added, the bacterium produces 35mg of spinosyn in a litre of fermentor (production medium of either glucose or sucrose), whereas the fungus produces 150mg a litre of fermentor in its natural strain.
The quantity produced increases once the microbe is genetically modified.
The fungus has a shorter life cycle and can produce spinosyn every seventh day under optimum conditions, compared with the bacterium, which takes 21 days to produce one batch of spinosyn.
Since the two organisms are similar genetically, researchers believe any new property discovered for the bacterium would be applicable to the fungus as well. For instance, a research group filed a US patent in July, claiming that spinosyn accelerates wound healing in humans.
“This is encouraging as we can also test our product for human use,” said Babu.