AmebaGone offers alternative to antibiotics for organic fruit growers

UW-Madison spinoff AmebaGone is trying to help organic apple and pear growers by preventing the destruction of their crops.

The company, founded in 2014 by UW-Madison bacteriology professor Marcin Filutowicz, has broader goals of helping find a better alternative to human antibiotics, as diseases are becoming increasingly resistant to them. But for now, it’s starting on treating the fire blight disease in apples and pear trees, which has in recent years become a major concern to organic growers.

The disease, caused by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora, can destroy millions of dollars of crop when an outbreak occurs. And until recently, organic growers relied on antibiotic treatments to prevent fire blight — a practice banned by the federal government in 2014.

AmebaGone is currently testing a new treatment that would help those organic growers, who face the choice of losing part of their crop to the disease or forfeit their organic certification.

The company uses a natural predator of the fire blight pathogen, called Dictyostelium, or Dicty. That organism could also combat pathogens affecting potatoes, tomatoes, corn and other cash crops — and could have applications for human treatments.

Dicty completely consumes harmful pathogens, unlike other technologies that “leave behind wastes and toxins,” said Cheryl Vickroy, the company’s president and CEO.

“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,” she said.

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.

Vickroy said the technology is also cost-effective, coming in the form of dried Dicty spores that can be rehydrated and sprayed on an orchard, much like the antibiotics growers previously used. That means growers won’t need to purchase additional equipment to use the product, Vickroy said, which is easy to store and can stay viable for more than 70 years.

The company has gotten several grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health hopes its first product will hit the market in early 2017.

But it’s also looking to raise $750,00 from investors for sales, marketing, travel and equipment costs.

AmebaGone was a finalist in the 2016 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which culminates June 7-8 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Madison.

— By Hannah Lucas,

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