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A stepping stone to a career in biocontrol

Within the different BIOCOMES work packages, many young scientists are working on finding and improving biological control agents. Who are they, and what does the cooperation within BIOCOMES mean to them?

Guendalina Barloggio (27)
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland

Guendalina Barloggio

‘At our institute I’m rearing the parasitic wasp Telenomus laeviceps, to control the cabbage moth Mamestra brassicae. To date, there is no effective biological control agent for cabbage moths. The parasitoid I’m working with, naturally occurs in many parts of Europe. In our field trials, we have been able to increase the natural parasitation rates of 5% to 70%, by mass release T. laeviceps. Now we are ready to test their efficacy in controlling the cabbage moth compared to standard insecticides applied against this pest.’


Andreas Larem (28)
Julius Kühn Institut, Germany

Andreas Larem

‘At JKI I’m characterising isolates of the Phthorimaea operculella granulovirus that are able to infect and destroy three closely related moth species causing a lot of damage in for example tomatoes and potatoes. I would like to find out what the differences are between strains of this virus. Besides bioassays that can determine the biological activity of the virus isolates towards it’s damaging host,  I’m using genetic information to solve a practical question. Which strain works better in destroying the larvae of the moths? Eventually, this should lead to a biological control agent that can be sprayed on a plant, after which the viruses infect and destroy the larvae before they can do harm.’


Ina Dittler (29)
Zurich University, Switzerland

Ina Dittler

‘At the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management in Zurich, I work at the in vitro production of baculoviruses. The Lymantria dispar multicapsid nucleopolyhedrovirus is able to kill gypsy moths, one of the most important pest insects in forests and orchards. Up to date, there’s only in vivo production of this virus. Should it be possible to produce large quantities in cell cultures in the lab, we would have a potentially very specific agent to control the harmful moths without side effects to other insects. In vitro production of this virus is almost a holy grail in this field. It is potentially interesting in the biopharmaceutical field also.


Bart Vandenbossche (32)
E-nema, Germany

Bart Vandenbossche

‘At E-nema, I’m trying to genetically improve the entomopathogenic nematode Heterorhabditis bacteriophora. That is a nematode that can effectively infect and destroy the western corn rootworm, Diabrotica virgifera virgifera. To date, however, the prize is still higher than classic, chemical control agents. By improving for example the virulence and persistence of the nematodes, we hope to be able to use a lot less nematodes in the near future, so that we can compete financially also with chemical products.’


Cooperation

The key characteristic within the BIOCOMES framework is ‘cooperation’. All young scientists agree this cooperation is vital to their project. Guendalina Barloggio: ‘The parasitoids that are bred in cooperation with the BIOCOMES-partner Andermatt, are naturally occurring in many parts of Europe. To be allowed to introduce them as a biological control agent, however, we need to establish whether or not they are present in any specific area where we would like to introduce them. Therefore we need the help of our project partners in, for example, Spain, Italy or Sweden.’

Within the project on virulent nematodes, Bart Vandenbossche works together with partners in, among others,  Israel and Portugal (Azores). ‘They helped us to find the genes that tell us more about the virulence of specific strains of nematodes. Without that knowledge, we would not be able to select strains of nematodes that are more effective in attacking rootworms.’

To Ina Dittler, the cooperation with partners like the Julius Kühn Institute and Andermatt Biocontrol is essential to establish the activity of her viruses. ‘So far, the viruses that we produce in vitro are a bit less virulent than the ones that are produced in vivo, in moths. Without the bioassays of our project partners, it would not be possible to establish the efficacy of a future biocontrol agent based on in vitro produced viruses.’

‘BIOCOMES is vital to our project’, Andreas Larem acknowledges. ‘We need many different isolates of a virus, for which the project partners are a source. Moreover, our institute is not commercial, so for the logical next step to the market, we can’t do without our project partners.’

Eureka

Like Archimedes stepping into his third century pre-Christian bath, all young researchers have experienced their own ‘Eureka!’ moments during the project.

‘To me it was when I recently saw my first virus that was produced in our in vitro system’, Ina Dittler recalls. ‘The yellowish, symmetrically shaped virus was truly good looking to me. Seeing it under our microscope marked an important milestone in the project.’

Andreas Larem was especially delighted when he found out that his virus was more effective in controlling pest insects in a crop than the chemical control. ‘Even under laboratory conditions, the virus was fairly slow in killing the insects. But in the field, we really saw the potential of this product.’

Guendalina Barloggio feels above all that luck has been on her side. ‘In the past, my predecessors had issues in producing the right amount of female parasitoids. To establish a functional rearing and produce an effective biological control agent we need females that lay eggs in the cabbage moth eggs. After different experiments and a lot of time invested, I’ve been extremely happy to observe how the amount of female offspring increased up to the expected sex ratio. Without them, we couldn’t move on with the project.’

Bart Vandenbossche recalls the moment when they first upscaled the production of their new nematode strain, and brought them to the field. ‘The moment you realise that your fundamental work in the lab can actually be brought into the field, that gives a real kick.’

Organic career 

Most of the young researchers hope that BIOCOMES has been a stepping stone towards a future career in biological control. ‘To a biologist, that makes the most sense’, Bart Vandenbossche says. His colleague Andreas Larem also finds it hard to imagine working in the industry of synthetic control agents. ‘BIOCOMES helps us, and the EU for that matter, to focus on the organic options that do no harm to the environment.’

Guendalina Barloggio notes that ‘the organic way’ is still not considered ‘mainstream’ amongst her generation. ‘But I’m convinced it has the potential to improve our life standards. The burden of chemical products is a real problem.’

The only young BIOCOMES-scientist who does not necessarily see herself in a future career in biocontrol is Ina Dittler. ‘The expertise I’m gaining may just as well be used in for example the biopharmaceutical industry. But this only stresses that the research in bio control is using cutting edge technology nowadays.’

Author

Nora de Rijk
Nora de Rijk
Communication and dissemination BIOCOMES project
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