By Hannah Lucas

Wisconsin is home to an impressive apple industry, producing over 40 million pounds of the fruit each year.   Although acreage devoted to apple orchards across the United States has begun to decline, consumer demand has spurred a fast-growing organic apple sector, which has grown to account for 6 percent of the market.

Fire Blight, a devastating disease of apple and pear trees, has been a recent cause of concern for organic growers.  This disease, caused by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora, can destroy millions of dollars of crop when an outbreak occurs.

Until recently, organic growers relied on antibiotic treatments to prevent Fire Blight.  However, the federal government in 2014 outlawed the use of antibiotics in order to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.  This left organic apple growers with no effective treatment.  In fact, Wisconsin growers were faced with the choice to lose part of their crop to the disease or forfeit organic certification.

Madison-based AmebaGone has developed an effective treatment that can help save the organic apple industry.

AmebaGone was founded in 2014 by UW-Madison Professor of Bacteriology Marcin Filutowicz.  An experienced scientist and businessman, Filutowicz saw the opportunity for immediate application of his research in bacteria and biofilms with the outcome of legislation in 2014 banning the use of antibiotics.

Researchers at AmebaGone have exploited a natural predator of the Fire Blight pathogen, called Dictyostelium, or Dicty.  Dicty completely consumes the harmful pest, leaving behind no toxins.

“Some competitors are exploiting what is called phage technology, but this isn’t a complete solution, and leaves behind wastes and toxins,” explained Cheryl Vickroy, the company’s president and CEO. “Other competitors target pests, not bacteria.  We are not aware of anyone else using our same approach, and our patents and licenses are so broad as to provide strong barriers to entry against others.”

In recent trials, some strains of Dicty were able to repeatedly destroy greater than 99 percent of the pest in the lab and apple flowers.  Greenhouse trials are set to continue this spring, and field trials with collaborating organic apple growers in Wisconsin and Michigan will begin next year.

Not only is this technology effective in destroying the Fire Blight pathogen, it will be cost effective.  The product comes in the form of dried Dicty spores, which can be rehydrated and sprayed on an apple orchard much like the antibiotics that growers previously used.  Growers therefore do not need to purchase additional equipment to use the product.  The dried spores are easy to store, and can stay viable for up to 70 years.

When asked about the potential of the Fire Blight pathogen becoming resistant to Dicty, Vickroy explained that AmebaGone plans to make “cocktails” of multiple Dicty strains, which will make it very difficult for the pathogen to develop resistance.  In short, this treatment will be effective, affordable and durable.

Since its founding in 2014, AmebaGone has secured multiple federal grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which have greatly helped with research and development costs.  The company is conducting trials for a Phase II NSF award, with the first product set to hit the market in early 2017, and the formulation aimed at apple growers in 2018.

However, federal grants do not cover important expenses that will help AmebaGone efficiently bring their product to market; costs such as sales marketing, travel, and equipment.  Vickroy is hoping to secure $750,000 from investors to help offset these costs and perhaps add to their patent portfolio.

AmebaGone does not plan to limit itself to the organic apple market.  Its organism, Dicty, can combat other pathogens affecting potatoes, tomatoes, corn and citrus. AmebaGone is a finalist in the 2016 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which culminates June 7-8 in Madison.

Lucas is a student in the UW Departments of Life Sciences Communication and Plant Pathology.