10.5 Microbes as Biocontrol Agents

Biocontrol refers to the use of biological methods for controlling plant diseases and pests. In modern society, these problems have been tackled increasingly by the use of chemicals – by use of insecticides and pesticides.

These chemicals are toxic and extremely harmful, to human beings and animals alike, and have been polluting our environment (soil, ground water), fruits, vegetables and crop plants.

Our soil is also polluted through our use of weedicides to remove weeds. Biological control of pests and diseases: In agriculture, there is a method of controlling pests that relies on natural predation rather than introduced chemicals.

A key belief of the organic farmer is that biodiversity furthers health. The more variety a landscape has, the more sustainable it is. The organic farmer, therefore, works to create a system where the insects that are sometimes called pests are not eradicated, but instead are kept at manageable levels by a complex system of checks and balances within a living and vibrant ecosystem.

Contrary to the ‘conventional’ farming practices which often use chemical methods to kill both useful and harmful life forms indiscriminately, this is a holistic approach that seeks to develop an understanding of the webs of interaction between the myriad of organisms that constitute the field fauna and flora.

The organic farmer holds the view that the eradication of the creatures that are often described as pests is not only possible, but also undesirable, for without them the beneficial predatory and parasitic insects which depend upon them as food or hosts would not be able to survive.

Thus, the use of biocontrol measures will greatly reduce our dependence on toxic chemicals and pesticides. An important part of the biological farming approach is to become familiar with the various life forms that inhabit the field, predators as well as pests, and also their life cycles, patterns of feeding and the habitats that they prefer.

This will help develop appropriate means of biocontrol. The very familiar beetle with red and black markings – the Ladybird, and Dragonflies are useful to get rid of aphids and mosquitoes, respectively. An example of microbial biocontrol agents that can be introduced in order to control butterfly caterpillars is the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (often written as Bt).

These are available in sachets as dried spores which are mixed with water and sprayed onto vulnerable plants such as brassicas and fruit trees, where these are eaten by the insect larvae. In the gut of the larvae, the toxin is released and the larvae get killed.

The bacterial disease will kill the caterpillars, but leave other insects unharmed. Because of the development of methods of genetic engineering in the last decade or so, the scientists have introduced B. thuringiensis toxin genes into plants.

Such plants are resistant to attack by insect pests. Bt-cotton is one such example, which is being cultivated in some states of our country. You will learn more about this in chapter 12. A biological control being developed for use in the treatment of plant disease is the fungus Trichoderma. Trichoderma species are free-living fungi that are very common in the root ecosystems.

They are effective biocontrol agents of several plant pathogens. Baculoviruses are pathogens that attack insects and other arthropods. The majority of baculoviruses used as biological control agents are in the genus Nucleopolyhedrovirus. These viruses are excellent candidates for species-specific, narrow spectrum insecticidal applications.

They have been shown to have no negative impacts on plants, mammals, birds, fish or even on non-target insects. This is especially desirable when beneficial insects are being conserved to aid in an overall integrated pest management (IPM) programme, or when an ecologically sensitive area is being treated.

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