Could Bacteria be a Sustainable Alternative to Pesticides?

Pesticides have changed the way we farm, but they have serious drawbacks, including potential toxicity and a negative impact on our pollinators. Now, scientists believe they may be able to modify bacteria to achieve the same results as pesticides without the environmental damage.

The research team from Cardiff University highlight that a family of bacteria known as Burkholderia ambifaria bacteria have evolved alongside many of our crops. As a result, they can help protect plants, because they produce a number of enzymes and substances that are great for plant health while also being able to break down pollutants.

There’s just one problem: Burkholderia are also potentially damaging to human and animal life, with several studies indicating a link between Burkholderia exposure and serious infections among cystic fibrosis sufferers. Because of concerns in the 1990s about the apparent risks that Burkholderia posed, its use as a non-synthetic pesticide ceased.

The potential has always been tantalizing though, if only the bacteria could be defanged.

In this latest study, published this month in “Nature Microbiology“, researchers identified the gene that allows Burkholderia to create an antibiotic known as Cepacin, which is great at fighting the horticultural disease, damping off. The researchers then employed techniques we often see in vaccine manufacturing. Researchers essentially broke up the genetics of the organism, then tested it to find if the configuration still worked. In this case, they wanted to test whether they could produce that all-important antibiotic without it carrying the other, potentially harmful material.

The researchers say that in lung infection models they were able to show that Burkholderia did not persist. They say that at this early stage of testing they are optimistic that the approach could successfully produce a Burkholderia mutant strain that is both beneficial for plants and safe for humans.

“I have been working with Burkholderia for many years, primarily in relation to CF lung infections, which in turn led to a new line of antibiotic discovery research,” lead researcher Professor Eshwar Mahenthiralingam, of Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, said in a statement. “Beneficial bacteria such as Burkholderia that have co-evolved naturally with plants, have a key role to play in a sustainable future. We have to understand the risks, mitigate against them and seek a balance that works for all.”

The idea of genetically modifying microbes to do the work of traditional pesticides isn’t a new one.

In fact, since genetic modification appeared on the horizon as a plausible means of reshaping the world, scientists have considered what role genetically modified bacteria could play in modern agriculture, not just in pest management.

For example, bacteria are really efficient at generating or encouraging several important compounds out of the soil, which in turn can promote better growth and resilience in the plants that share that soil. Researchers have also looked into ways that microbes might support plants during tough conditions, like drought.

However, this research is particularly interesting for the way in which it seizes on an already known property—the Burkholderia bacteria family—and attempts to repurpose it. The research is still in its early stages, and one of the next key steps will be to see if the bacteria proves save in human exposure tests.

One of the other major sticking points, and one that comes up a lot with genetic modification, is the reasonable consideration of how we keep this genetically modified bacteria within the confines of specially secured farms. That’s not because there is any identifiable overt risk, but we simply do not know what this altered bacteria might do in the wider environment.

Keeping GM products sufficiently restricted has in the past proved a challenge but also an achievable goal. It is not inconceivable that we would be able to do this without compromising those reasonable boundaries.

This research demonstrates that synthetic pesticides need not be the go-to solution for crop protection and that with a careful application of science we may yet find ways of harnessing existing bacteria-plant relationships to encourage crop and plant growth without damaging our environment.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

39 comments

Lisa M
Lisa M6 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M6 days ago

Thanks.

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Celine Russo
Celine Russo8 days ago

Interesting idea... hopefully viable.

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Bill Arthur
Bill Arthur9 days ago

There is much misinterpretation of the use of words. Pesticide refers to any product used to control disease, insects and weeds. This article seems to be referring to disease and maybe insects but not weeds so it would be better to use specific terms rather than the general term 'pesticide. And among the responses the misinformation about 'organic' not using pesticides comes up again. Look into the real world and you will find 'organic' growers have a long list of pesticides that they are allowed to use and that they DO use. Yes they may claim they are natural (but only by their definition in many cases) but that does not make them safer than pesticides developed to work well with small amounts that decay rapidly in the environment and have been tested and proven to be safe.

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David C
David C12 days ago

interesting idea.....

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Irene S
Irene S12 days ago

Organic growing IS a sustainable alternative to pesticides and artificial fertilizer!

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD12 days ago

TYFS

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Thomas M
Thomas M12 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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Ruth S
Ruth S13 days ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S13 days ago

Thanks.

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