MSU College of Agriculture Professor Barry Jacobsen holds a sample of an agricultural disease-fighting technology that could save farmers around the world millions of dollars. MSU research has shown the technology, a naturally occurring bacterium dubbed BmJ, works on a wide array of crops and diseases and initiates an innate immune response by activating a gene found in most plants. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham.
Breakthrough biotechnology registered for commercial use
A naturally occurring bacterium discovered by Montana State University has been registered for commercial use and sale by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its impressive plant-disease fighting capabilities.
This is the first time MSU has had a technology registered by the EPA for commercial use, a significant milestone in the university’s research and technology transfer history. Canada has published an intent to register the bacterium for use and other countries are expected to follow suit.
The disease-fighting bacterium, BmJ WG, was discovered and named “Bacillus mycoides isolate J” by Barry Jacobsen, associate director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station and professor of plant sciences and plant pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture. It is currently licensed for use by Certis USA, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of biotreatments for plant pests and diseases.
Jacobsen originally isolated the bacterium in 1994 from a field of sugar beets near Sidney, Montana that had been devastated by a catastrophic Cercospora leaf spot outbreak. Jacobsen’s early research showed the bacterium activated the natural immune defenses of plants against bacterial, viral and fungal diseases.
“When I first started working with this I thought we really had something special with which to protect sugar beets,” 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.”
Certis’ research found the bacterium can be effective in fighting off diseases in almonds, all citrus crops, all cole crops – broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, etc. – all cucurbits – squash, zucchini, pumpkins – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillo, okra, lettuce, legumes, pecans, apples, pears and other pome fruits, potatoes, spinach and sugar beets.
The patented BmJ spray, called LifeGard, is expected to provide farmers with an effective and natural alternative to traditional chemical crop treatments. It was just approved by the Organic Material Review Institute for use in organic production. Attorneys with the international patent law firm Cooley were instrumental in counseling MSU throughout the patent procurement and licensing phases of BmJ’s development.
That BmJ’s journey to a commercial product took 22 years is illustrative of the challenges of moving scientific discoveries into the marketplace, said Renee Reijo Pera, MSU vice president of research and economic development.
“It is not easy moving a discovery in basic science into the marketplace,” Reijo Pera said. “But the potential benefits of such work can be enormous -- world changing. In the case of the BmJ, this will benefit farmers not only in Montana, but across the globe. This is a great example of what a land-grant university like MSU can do to improve our world. It’s a very proud day for us.”
Jacobsen’s early work was assisted by then post-doctoral research scientist Nina Zidack, now director of the MSU Potato Lab, and then doctoral student Rebecca Bargabus-Larson, both of whom are co-inventors. Also instrumental was Rebecca Mahurin, who served as director of MSU’s Technology Transfer Office through BmJ’s early development and now serves as special projects manager in the MSU Office of Research and Economic Development. In 2003, BmJ was licensed to Montana Microbial Products where its co-founder, Cliff Bradley, helped advance the research on the bacterium before it was ultimately licensed to Certis, USA.