Wheat School: Unleashing a bacteria biopesticide to control grassy weeds

The bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens on agar (Source: Ninjatacoshell; CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons)

A “biopesticide” is defined as a living organism that’s capable of controlling a pest, including weeds.

Dr. Susan Boyetchko, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatoon, specializes in biopesticide technology, and she’s been working on a program to develop bio-based tools for controlling grassy weeds, such as wild oats and green foxtail.

As she explains in this Wheat School episode, there’s been a fair bit of research looking at using fungi to control broadleaf weeds. For grassy weeds, however, she found bacteria to be more effective.

Untreated green foxtail (AAFC)

“To control it with fungi we needed to attack its growing point, and we weren’t finding anything significant, so we went underground,” says Boyetchko. “We established a culture collection, but one of our best performers was a strain of bacteria that we started developing, which we applied as a granular application… So now we have bacteria that inhibit germination and root growth elongation, and once you do that, basically (the weeds) don’t emerge.”

Her research has shown this strain, Pseudomonas fluorescens, attacks some common grassy weeds, including herbicide resistant populations, but is safe on 17 crops grown in Western Canada, including wheat, barley and pulses.

Treated green foxtail (AAFC)

While the process of growing bacteria is “cheap as borscht,” one of the challenges for industry is figuring out how to deliver this bacteria without harming the living organism, while having a practical shelf-life for farm use, she says.

A bio-based option would help farmers manage against herbicide resistance, although resistance to biopesticides could still occur, notes Boyetchko. It would also give organic farmers a tool for controlling wild oat and green foxtail.

24 companies have expressed interest in commercializing her work.

Boytechko discusses her findings, the timeline for when farmers could have access to this biopesticide, and more in our latest Wheat School episode:

 
 

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