Magic Mushrooms 

Butte’s fungus factory hits it big with a bug-killing mushroom

Mycotech, a Montana-based corporation that develops biological alternatives to pesticides, operates the largest fungi-producing facility in the world at Butte’s Industrial Park. Mycotech Senior Scientist Stefan Jaronski says they can produce 2.5 quintillion spores of Beauveria bassiana per year, enough insect-killing fungi to cover a quarter-million acres.

The numbers may sound alarming, and fungus may conjure up images of ringworm, athlete’s foot, and moldy bread. But the naturally occurring—that is, not genetically engineered—fungi that Mycotech produces en masse has proven harmless to plants, animals, fish, birds, humans, and even ladybugs and honey bees.

This year Mycotech may approach its maximum capacity of production as large scale farmers in Central America begin to use B. bassiana. Within a year or two, Mycotech hopes to register their products in Europe as well.

As a relatively new technology for commercial farmers, the use of B. bassiana hasn’t hit the mainstream marketplace. Mycotech registered its product with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996 as Mycotrol for outdoor vegetables, and BotaniGard for greenhouse plants. As farmers catch on, new companies that market different strains of B. bassiana are sprouting up throughout the world. Seven different B. bassiana products are now registered with the EPA.

According to Jaronski and Mycotech Laboratory Manager Richard A. DeMaio, knowledge of B. bassiana’s ability to kill unwelcome insects like whiteflies, aphids, and mealy worms, dates back to China 1,000 years ago. Until Mycotech’s entomologists came on the scene, scientists found large-scale production of the fungus daunting and nearly impossible.

Entomologists throughout the country have been fiddling around with the fungus, isolating the various strains in petri dishes and cultivating it in small amounts. Mycotech “scaled up from the petri plate,” explains DeMaio, by developing a facility that could grow fungi on up to 20,000 pounds of moldy material at one time. “What we can produce with two pounds of substrate (solid material to host the fungus) would take 20,000 petri dishes,” adds Jaronski.

Scientists then had to formulate a way to suspend the spores in water so they could be distributed with modern farming equipment. Adding inert wetting agents to the spores made packaging and distribution possible.

One pound of BotaniGard or Mycotrol contains, along with the wetting agents, 20 trillion living spores, and will treat two acres of crops. Such high concentrations of spores ensure that the fungus comes in direct contact with the offending insects.

Once the spores recognize the cuticle of a soft-bodied insect, they begin to root into the insect, robbing it of its ability to digest food. Within 24 to 48 hours of an application, the harmful insects die. Beneficial insects are left unscathed. As the pests die, the fungi also dies, thus allowing the plants and soil to return to normal fungal concentrations.

Because the fungus dies rapidly, farmers and greenhouse growers need persistence and consistency when they apply the product. Don Visser, of Visser Greenhouses in Manhattan, Mont., uses BotaniGard to control thrips. “As long as I keep up with spraying once a week, it’s a good spray program,” he says, but if he gets behind on his spraying, Visser must resort to chemicals to get rid of the adult pests.

If farmers remember to spray frequently, B. bassiana’s effectiveness surpasses chemical pesticides, because insects do not develop resistance. Explains DeMaio, “A chemical pesticide is like a single bullet; one small change and the insect can dodge the bullet. The fungus is more like a shotgun blast; a change may happen in an insect that allows it to dodge one bullet, but not all of them.” Jaronski, and other scientists around the country, have tried, unsuccessfully, to generate insect resistance to B. bassiana. How ladybugs and other beneficial insects resist the fungus remains a mystery.

B. bassiana’s ecological advantages are attractive to farmers like Visser, because consumers are expressing more concern about residual pesticides on their food, and the effects of chemicals on ecosystems.

All seven products on the market warrant little regulation by the EPA. The products have proven harmless to the point that the EPA allows farmers to spray 12 hours before a harvest, and exempts the product from residual tolerance levels. According to the EPA, the re-entry period for BotaniGard, Mycotrol and other B. bassiana products is 12 hours, due to their tendency to cause eye irritation.

The added wetting agents are the only barrier to Mycotech’s ability to obtain organic certification for the B. bassiana products, claims DeMaio. In fact, the wetting agents are the product’s ecological disadvantage, because they contain an oil. Excess oil can threaten aquatic ecosystems.

Nonetheless, Mycotech, DeMaio says, is currently “putting together a new formulation to allow our B. bassiana products’ entry into organic certification.”

Beauveria bassiana is not only effective, it is “safer than salt,” maintains Jaronski. “But,” adds DeMaio, “it probably doesn’t taste very good.”

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