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Attack of the killer microbes

Don't want to eat genetically engineered corn? How about vegetables sprayed with killer bugs? It works, say advocates.

AgraQuest, a Davis, California-based designer of organic pesticides, has purchased a Canadian company that says it has identified a Latin American plant extract that can kill common garden bugs.

Under the deal, Codena will become part of AgraQuest, and the resulting company will try to market a biopesticide based on Codena's plant-derived extract by 2007.

Biopesticides are patented pesticides in which microscopic organisms kill other, crop-damaging ones. Biopesticides can be sprayed up to harvest time, and fungi, aphids and other garden pests do not develop resistance as rapidly, according to Pam Marrone, AgraQuest founder. Although the field is still relatively obscure, interest in biopesticides is growing rapidly, due in part to consumer opposition to and increasing regulations surrounding genetic engineering and pesticides made from industrial chemicals.

Biopesticides account for about $7 billion of the $30 billion pesticide industry, and the biopesticide sector of the market is growing at roughly 20 percent a year.

The animal kingdom is a crucial part of a very small, but growing, collection of tech start-ups. Synthetic Genomics, a start-up founded by J. Craig Venter, is isolating microbes that the company hopes could one day produce methane or hydrogen, possible fuel sources. Meanwhile, Cambrios hopes to genetically engineer microbes to produce compounds for the electronics industry.

To date, AgraQuest's pesticides have been based around deadly bugs. A microbe discovered in a peach orchard in central California became the basis of the company's Serenade product. Serenade kills by inhibiting germination among invading fungi. The company is also working on a pesticide with a microbe discovered by a group of researchers in Siberia that once worked for a bioweapons lab. The company identifies deadly bugs, tests them, and then patents the formulas derived from their research.

"You patent the strain of microbe grown in a particular way," said Marrone, who started collecting bugs as a kid. "You have to isolate it and show how you grow it."

The company has received $60 million in venture funding, albeit over several years. Most recently, a group of investors led by Otter Capital and Texas Pacific Group invested $14 million in the company.