BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Springtime arrives once more to banish the icy hand of winter from our frosty cities, and again the Earth renews itself in preparation for another long and bountiful summer. For you and I, springtime probably means a few things: warmer weather, longer days, and reinvigorated plant life. Maybe you like to garden, in which case you’ll be heading out to the local gardening center. But spring also brings with it some unwanted backyard menaces to your garden: very hungry caterpillars, ravenous aphids, and squirrels and chipmunks looking for seedy snacks. Life can get very tough for a young sprout in a big and perpetually hungry world.
If you happen to be a farmer looking to lay down some fresh crops in a newly ploughed field, things are going to get a lot more complicated. Do you find it hard to defend a meagre vegetable garden or sunflower stand? Try keeping watch over several hundred acres of optimized and carefully tended farmland. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that farmers are constantly searching for new ways to safeguard their young crops: these days, that takes the form of crop dusting fields from above. That said, a lot of those chemicals can get very nasty, very quickly. Not only do most commercially available pesticides cause unprecedented ructions throughout the environment, unintentionally poisoning other animals and, in extreme cases, rendering entire areas largely uninhabitable, but poisons from these pesticides can also seep into local water tables and contaminate publically available water sources. It’s no surprise that scientists and ecologically conscious farmers have long been searching for more peaceful means of deterrence – but scarecrows don’t cut it anymore.
In France, the De Sangosse Group, a biochemical think tank, has recently announced an unprecedented new breakthrough in the field of pesticides that moves the concept of crop protection in a radical and unexpected direction. Look no further than your doctor’s office. Diminutive but powerful, Streptomyces occupies a strange offshoot of the microbe family tree. Though this species thrives in decaying vegetation and nutrient-rich soil, the kind you might find in a healthy forest floor, Streptomyces can live anywhere where there is enough food and oxygen. As they eat, metabolize and grow, Streptomyces produces useful antibiotics as waste products, which we’ve previously harvested and exploited for our own medical research.
Now, scientists are working to integrate genetically modified Streptomyces samples into a clean, green, and animal-friendly form of pest control. While manmade chemicals are generally concentrated in liquid or gas forms, this experimental pesticide grows underground around the roots of plants. While manmade pesticides offer few long-term gains in favor of short-term environmental damage, Streptomyces offers a symbiotic relationship between itself and its parent plant: the microbe’s built-in antibiotics detoxifies nasty threats like the runners of fungi, turning them into healthy sources of nutrients. The plant, in return, provides its Streptomyces defenders with extra oxygen and nutrients, giving them an advantage over the average Joe Microbe that doesn’t put in the extra work to defend its plant. It may take a while, but these tiny powerhouses may change the way we guard our crops. Move over, Scarecrow.