Fungus experts Biotelliga targets Kauri Dieback and harmful insecticides

Fungus experts Biotelliga targets Kauri Dieback and harmful insecticides
What do European bees and the kauri tree have in common? They are both praying that Kiwi fungus experts Biotelliga is successful in its development of products which will save them from nasty insecticides and a lethal disease respectively.

From a laboratory in Pukekohe, biological control company Biotelliga is developing products using indigenous fungi to safely tackle two contentious issues on opposite sides of the globe.

If all goes to plan, within the next couple of years this fearless outfit may have developed a metabolite to eradicate KauriDieback disease and launched a replacement for insecticides linked tothe mass decrease in European bee populations.

Technical director Stephen Ford, who Idealog spoke to in issue #36 before Greentide was rebranded to Biotelliga, says the company’s philosophy distinguishes it from its global competitors. While most of its rivals are attempting to integrate their products with the current crop of pesticides on the market to make them safer, Biotelligais developing total replacements for these toxic substances – something that Ford says both suppliers and the public are demanding.

“Our job is to take a biological product, something that is benign to the environment and perceived as having a very safe, mammalian toxicity profile, and turn it into a product where the grower has exactly the same experience. This way, they can begin moving away from a lot of this toxic stuff which is in the food chain.”

Ford says the company is working on two major, bone-tinglingly exciting projects right now, both of which attempt to solve an environmental issue whilst doing no harm to animal or plant life.

Kauri dieback, a fungus-like disease caused by phytophthora taxon agathis (PTA), was formally identified in 2008 and can kill kauri seedlings and trees of all ages. The disease is spread through microscopic spores in the soil which damage the tissues that carry nutrients within the tree, and is believed to have killed thousands of kauri in the past decade. The issue is naturally a bit of a political hot-potato, with many politicians and environmental groups slamming the Government over the perceived lack of funding set aside to stop the disease spreading.

This is when things start to get really interesting. Biotelliga’s mates at the University of Auckland found an indigenous fungus on the forest floor that Ford describes as “the biggest bully in the playground”. Basically it just wants to beat up and steal the lunch money of every other organism around it. When University of Auckland professors were examining the fungus in the laboratory for use as a potential food colouring, it managed to escape and kill off everything else that was in the lab in typical bad-boy fashion. Auckland Uni thought it may be safer to pass this murderous rebel onto fungus experts Biotelliga.

When the lads at Biotelliga started experimenting with the fungus, they found that every other fungus the compound was put against was controlled. Fast-forward a couple of years and Biotelliga has developed an easy-to-use formulation that can deliver the metabolite to control other fungi. Now the plan is to place a high amount of this metabolite around the kauri root system to kill off the harmful phytophthora while doing nothing to fungi that protect and help the tree flourish.

“We believe it’s a leading candidate in the control of Kauri Dieback because it comes from an indigenous fungus to New Zealand and it’s a naturally occurring fungus, so putting it back into the soil around kauri roots to produce the compound to control the phytophthora is an absolute no brainer,” says Ford.

Full field trials will take place later this year. If everything goes to plan and the metabolite is found do its job without harming any other plant or animal life, Ford says Biotelliga will present a case to the Government with the backing of supporters Landcare Research.

However, this isn’t the only project Biotelliga is working on that could potentially solve an environmental issue (greedy, aren’t they?). A number of neonicotinoids – a range of insecticides which pervade a plant to stop insects in the soil attacking the seed and destroying the grown plant – were banned by the European Union earlier this year due a number of scientific studies linking the products to serious reduction in bee populations.  

While it is predominantly a European issue, many retailers in New Zealand have stopped selling the products. For most people, bees are viewed simply as annoying pests who want to do nothing but pester and sting you. But actually bees play a crucial role in the agricultural industry as they pollinate our fruit, vegetables and even the grass that our cows eat, so ensuring their populations do not dwindle is something that cannot be understated.

This is obviously a concern for agriculturists in New Zealand, but it is already a huge issue for their counterparts in Europe, many of who are now being forced to turn to different products to protect their crops. This presents a massive opportunity to biological companies worldwide (neonicotinoids are one of the world’s most widely used insecticides) and Biotelliga hopes to take advantage with its new development.

Once again Biotelliga is using a fungus indigenous to New Zealand to try and solve the issue. The plan is to replace neonicotinoids, not tinker with them to make them safer. Ford says the project is about 75 percent complete, and all the testing shows the company has a successful product on its hands.

“Our focus is on the replacement of the neonicotinoid family and we’ve got a product that’s working as good as, and all of our trials are showing as least as good as the market standard if not slightly better than the market standard.

“We’re now regularly producing an end product for the market. We have another year of testing nationally as well as internationally. Once that’s complete we will be releasing the product on a global stage with our chosen market channels and we’re talking to a number of the multinationals right now about who that’s going to be.”