USDA Patents Microbes to Fight Wheat Fungus

Lee Poulsen
Fri, 21 Jul 2006 09:59:01 PDT
This is slightly off-topic, but I thought you had to breed a new or 
different kind of strain of a plant or propagate a particular clone in 
order to patent it. I didn't think you could just discover a new 
species and patent it outright. Since the article below is referring to 
fungi and bacteria, neither of which are plants, are the rules 
different? And furthermore, what about animals, including mammals? If 
you develop a new breed of cat or dog, can you patent it these days? Or 
that new species of rodent they discovered in Southeast Asia not too 
long ago: Can the entire species be patented by its discoverers? It 
seems weird to find a fungus that naturally secretes an antibiotic that 
kills some disease (rather than being genetically modified to do so), 
and then patent it without you having "invented" or developed it in any 
way. All you did was find it.

I guess not being a lawyer, I just don't understand what the original 
intent of granting patents really is.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USDA Zone 10a

USDA Patents Microbes to Fight Wheat Fungus

By Jan Suszkiw
July 17, 2006
Four yeasts and three bacteria that live on flowering wheat heads, but 
cause no harm there, have been patented by the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture (USDA) as biological control agents in the fight against 
Fusarium head blight (FHB).

Caused by the fungus Fusarium graminearum, FHB is among the most costly 
diseases of cereal crops worldwide, including wheat, barley and oats. 
 From 1998 to 2000, FHB epidemics in U.S. small grains inflicted an 
estimated $2.7 billion worth of losses, notes David Schisler. He is a 
plant pathologist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA's 
chief scientific research agency.

The fungus infects wheat through its flower tissues, including anthers. 
But competition for space and nutrients there is fierce, according to 
studies by Schisler and colleagues at the ARS National Center for 
Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., and at Ohio State 
University (OSU) in Columbus. Indeed, some of the bacteria and yeasts 
that the researchers isolated from wheat anthers secrete antibiotics, 
or use other means, to keep the fungus at bay--to the wheat plant's 

To exploit this "natural antagonism," Schisler and OSU colleagues 
Michael Boehm and Naseem Khan devised fermentation procedures to 
culture quantities of the beneficial microbes for application to 
flowering wheat heads. The four yeasts and three bacteria that have 
been patented (U.S. No. 7,001,755) were the "top picks" from about 700 
microbial specimens the scientists evaluated for their fungus-fighting 
prowess. Of these seven, yeast strain OH 182.9 performed the best in 
field trials, reducing FHB's severity in spring, winter and durum 
wheats by 20 to 60 percent.

USDA's patenting of this approach to controlling FHB is a critical 
first step towards garnering the commercial interest necessary to 
develop the microbes as registered biological control products that can 
be used separately or in specific combinations on wheat or other cereal 
crops. Their development, along with more FHB-resistant wheat 
varieties, is especially appealing because the use of foliar fungicides 
is complicated by timing and availability by state.

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