A team of researchers have been tasked to find, grow and scale production of viruses that will kill pathogens and bacteria that have an economic impact on the horticulture and bee industries.
Lincoln University Professor Travis Glare will attempt to scale production of bacteriophages, referred to as phages, which are viruses that feed on and kill bacteria and pathogens.
Such products already exist in human medicine, he said.
This is, however, a relatively new concept in agriculture, although some commercial products are already available in Europe, Glare said.
Phages can target specific bacteria, and not affect others that may be beneficial to the organism.
Initial products will economically benefit the kiwifruit and apiculture sectors, which have been significantly impacted by the bacterial pathogen kiwifruit vine canker, or Psa, and American Foulbrood, which attacks honeybees.
Work on phage biocontrols for cherry and salmon industries will follow.
Phages are “very specific” and attack only a single strain of bacteria, which means a single phage can not kill all bacteria, Glare said.
While this could be an advantage for the industry because very specific products will have to be developed for different bacteria, using only a few specific phages on a bacteria could possibly lead to resistance, he said.
“We will have to make phage cocktails made of different phages,” Glare said.
The project is led by Professor Peter Fineran from the University of Otago and Dr Heather Hendrickson from the University of Canterbury.
The project also includes researchers from Plant and Food Research and the Cawthron Institute.
Experts across many fields are needed because no single group would get to a desired end goal alone, Glare said.
Glare is also the founder of Biosouth, a fermentation company, and said his biggest hurdle is scaling production.
“My biggest challenge is scale, going from production in a flask, to 1000 litres, to 10,000 litres, and doing that in a way that’s economical. There are really small margins in this. You need something that can be produced in bulk, but it should cost dollars, not hundreds of dollars.”
Each step in the process has hurdles to overcome, Glare said.
For example, Professor Craig Bunt from the University of Otago is working on formulations to make sure phages don’t die after they are sprayed onto plants.
Development of a commercial product of this kind could take between five and 10 years, Glare said.
“The main idea of this project isn’t just the products we are working on, but the pipeline of how you do this and how it can lead to other products.”
Phage products could to some extent replace chemical pesticides and antibiotics, he said.
The infrastructure for growing phage is the same as for producing biopesticides from live organisms, he said. The sale structure is the same as selling pesticides.
“This is not going to solve every problem in agriculture, but it has the potential to be quite significant.” Glare said phages are very adaptable.
“You can keep changing phages in a product without necessarily going back to square one. If you get resistance you can swap one phage out for another one.”
Glare received $8.9 million for the project from the Endeavour Fund, which is administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.