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MICROBIOLOGIST IS FIGHTING BUGS WITH BUGS

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Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Americans and Russians have found they have at least one common foe: the Colorado potato beetle.

The black and yellow insect that plagues American farms does even more damage in Russia, where farmers can't afford pesticides, said U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Robert Thornley.They are left to deal with the critter the old fashioned way, he said.

"They round up everyone in the village, pull people from schools, and cover the fields looking for beetles," said Thornley, who is stationed at Utah State University. "Then they crush the beetles and their egg clusters. That's their defense in rural areas."

The effort is rarely effective and some of the beetles almost inevitably escape. The result can be the loss of more than half of the country's potato crop.

But, hopefully, no longer. Thornley and some Russian farmers and researchers have come up with a new and experimental method to control the beetles through the use of bacteria.

Thornley said initial research looks positive and he plans a field test in the next year. If results are good, he plans to market the bug-killing bug.

He calls the bacterium "BT" and says it is they are sprayed like a chemical onto the potato plants. The beetles ingest it when they eat the leaves.

It should be readily available and inexpensive to Russian farmers - partly because it is manufactured from the very crop it is designed to save. The bacterium, Thornley said, is a yeast byproduct from vodka, which is made from fermented potatoes.

There are still some questions about whether the beetles will be able to adapt to the bacteria, but Thornley said experimentation with similar bacteria in the United States has been positive.

Thornley believes the bacteria may help provide a stabilizing effect in Russia's economy, since potatoes and cabbage are the country's two primary crops.

"Those who want to get involved in a western-type economy get excited about the program because they see they can double their crop," Thornley said. "Labor and seeds are cheap there, so if you get a higher return, it means a lot more income. Everyone wants to talk to me about ideas to improve production - `What can I plant, can you help us with this or that?"'

Thornley, who made his first trip to Russia in 1989, will return next month.