Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 162 | Enero 1995



BT: Chronicle of an Opportunity Lost

In 1990 everything was set so that Nicaragua could enter the promising world of biotechnology by producing biological insecticide on the basis of “Bt”. Then the Chamorro government arrived and the project was ditched. This is the story of a bacterium who as sidelined by the neoliberals.

Raquel Fernández

For more than 40 years now, we have known that insects take ill and die just like any other animal, and we are also aware that some microbes are capable of making insects that damage agriculture sick. Those microbes destroy the insects without hurting other beneficial insects or crops or human beings or animals who consume the plants. They are microorganisms that collaborate with human beings in agriculture.

A Microscopic and Magical Microbe

Among the microorganisms used in agriculture, possibly the best known and most studied are bacteria in the form of an aerobic rod shaped organism: they breathe the same air humans do. The scientific name of these bacteria is Bacillus thuringiensis, but they are more popularly known as "Bt".

Bt are not rare bacteria. They are found in soils all over the world. Nicaragua has reasonable quantities of different varieties of Bt, sufficient to combat the various blights affecting national crops. Their toxin is particularly effective against caterpillars. Other strains of Bt are effective against coleoptera, insects that begin as worms and turn into beetles. Still other varieties attack malaria and dengue carrying mosquitoes. All these varieties have one common characteristic: none are harmful to either human beings or domesticated animals.

Under favorable conditions, Bt multiplies rapidly dividing into two parts, known scientifically as bipartition. It can also reproduce through spores, a process not requiring a prior union with another cell.
The value of Bt for agriculture is in a microscopic toxic crystal, of a generally rhomboid form, which remains inert in the interior of the bacteria until it finds an alkaline environment. Vegetarian insects have a digestive system with a high alkaline content a Ph of over 8.

While the Bt is alive, it maintains the crystal within itself. When it dies, the crystal is released. In the intestines of other insects, the tiny crystal easily dissolves and releases its poisons, capable of killing the host insects. When a caterpillar eats vegetables coated with Bt, it is taking in millions of these bacteria. As the food passes through the insect's digestive system, many Bt die, thus freeing the crystals carried inside, which dissolve in the alkaline environment. Thus begin the insect's problems and the farmer's solution. In caterpillars and worms, the dissolved crystal produces an illness similar to cholera in humans, which ultimately causes death. When the insect dies, it releases millions of Bt that will be eaten by other insects. And the cycle begins again.

And what happens to humans who eat vegetables with Bt? Nothing. Our digestive system is too different from that of insects. It is a very acidic environment, within which the crystal is not dissolved, and thus does not release the toxin. The same is true of other animals, both herbivores and carnivores. The active elements remain crystallized, inert, as they go through the digestive system, and thus harmless. The bacteria and its magic crystal simply do not affect us.

A Known and Esteemed Bacteria

The crystal Bt produces is a protein a molecule composed of amino acids with very specific characteristics, whose properties are transformed with very small changes that alter its structure. These changes are frequently produced in a natural form and can also be produced through biotechnological channels.

Bacteria are very mutable organisms, very easy to change. They themselves mutate at any moment to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. And they can be mutated. Insects find it tremendously difficulties to develop defenses against the Bt. It has happened in some places, but only after over 20 years of being affected by a particular strain of the bacteria. Nonetheless, it's enough to make small variations through the biotechnology channels in the bacteria and in its crystal to make it more efficient in acting against insects. All that is needed is to constantly investigate possible resistances and obtain the necessary mutations. The field is virtually infinite.

Bt has been known about since the beginning of the 1950s. Due to its effectiveness and the specificity of its actions against harmful insects, and because it is harmless to human beings and the environment, this bacteria was studied in depth and industrial production began.

The research showed that Bt varieties attack the tobacco worm which destroys the plant's shoot and other blights: those affecting corn, tomatoes, melons and vegetables. In Canada and other countries with a longstanding forestry tradition, Bt is used massively to protect economically profitable forests, especially pines. In the developed countries, concentrates of Bt for different uses are produced in industrial plants.

A Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Todd Anderson is from the United States, with the classic look of the good guy in a Hollywood western: tall, blond, clear blue eyes and a quick smile. Despite his possibilities for entering the "star system," he decided to study biochemical engineering.

Full of idealism as one would expect of an authentic young man and a committed environmentalist, Todd wanted to put his life and knowledge at the service of humanity and nature. So, with the ink on his master's diploma still fresh, he came to Nicaragua. He knew that a number of his colleagues and compatriots were here, trying to help develop agricultural technology that was not harmful to nature and would help the country advance in other areas. It was 1984 and, in Nicaragua, anything seemed possible.

The group of young US and German citizens Todd was a part of was, with the help of a number of US and German solidarity committees, doing research that would serve as the basis for the future industrial production of Bt to serve national demand.

The beginning was very difficult. Coming from a North American university outfitted with state of the art laboratories, Todd landed in a shack that looked more like a shabby kitchen than a scientific lab. It was like a step back into the era of medieval alchemists. And, though Todd doesn't say this, it's clear that he felt like a Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

The dozens of small problems did not discourage Todd. The project was barely three months old when he became involved in it and he knew that all beginnings are hard. He lost no time in setting himself to the task. Little by little, his character and spark worked the miracle of making a dream into reality, though not without new difficulties arising. The other foreigners who had been working on the project went back to their countries, discouraged by the obstacles they had to confront. Only Todd demonstrated, with his actions, that the pioneer spirit persists in the youth of the US.

The tiny "kitchen" where the work began was soon replaced with a large, well equipped laboratory in which to develop biotechnological projects. It was financed by GTZ, a German government organization .
Several years later, the solitude of Todd's laboratory was broken with the arrival of new technicians and professionals, specialized in the field of microbiology. This time around, they were Nicaraguans.

A Large Step Forward for National Industry

"Nicaragua had no professionals trained for this kind of work, because there was no real demand in the country," explains Todd. "Only the country's two breweries needed some specialists, but it ended up cheaper to bring them in from outside. No industry here was capable of absorbing graduates with this knowledge."
But with the Bt project, even just in the research phase, the demand for these professionals jumped. A number of young Nicaraguans went to Mexico and to Canada to train in the management of the different research phases and subsequent industrial processes. Three of them earned Master's degrees and six more returned as technicians.

These young people were just the beginning of a new and promising national industrial sector. Not only the Bt project and the national breweries needed biotechnicians. They would also be useful, for example, in the dairy industry, a longstanding tradition in Nicaragua. Cheese was being manufactured in the country with formulas handed down through generations, using artisan procedures that led to wild variations in quality and flavor depending, among other things, on the time of year and the talent of the individual cheesemaker. A situation like this was tenable as long as most of the cheese was consumed by the rural population, but if the market was to be broadened to the cities or if there was any hope of marketing cheese abroad, a more standardized and high quality product was needed. That could only be obtained through very careful management of the fermentation process. And microbiology had the answer.

These and many branches of the food products, pharmaceutical, agricultural and many other industries began to join in the demand for professionals. Thus Nicaragua would land on its feet in the arena of a cutting edge science full of potential, in which it was rapidly attaining a comparative advantage in the region.

The Nicaraguan "Super Bt"

Different varieties and strains of Bt are found all over the world. But, since Bt is very dispersed in soils, it is not always possible to find the best kind of Bt, or to find it in the appropriate quantities. Few harmful insects would be contaminated if Nature was left to its own course. This means carrying out research to determine which Bt strain is the most effective for a given type of blight, and isolating that strain. It must subsequently be produced in industrial quantities so it can be effective.

The production process is carried out in a sterilized fermenter or bioreactor, where a pure strain is placed in a liquid culture. In 24 hours, a concentration of 100 million bacteria per milliliter is obtained. In the laboratory, the experiments are done with 15 liter fermenters, but in industrial production, gigantic 5,000 liter reactors are used.

Before undertaking industrial production, a number of variables must be taken into account including the way each Bt strain acts on each pest, the nutritional mixture on which each culture must be based in order to produce bacteria, the temperatures that must be maintained to accelerate reproduction.

The Nicaraguan team Todd headed carried out many experiments over the years of research. It compared a number of domestic and foreign Bt strains it had isolated, including imported ones already prepared for agricultural use. As a result of this research, the team concluded that the most effective way to confront the Nicaraguan pests and blights was by using certain domestic Bt strains it had isolated, nourished on cultures prepared with local products. It was found that Nicaragua's Bt strains are so aggressive and vigorous that they successfully take on insects from other latitudes and compete successfully with their relatives of other nationalities on any terrain.

An Immense Horizon

Once the Bt is obtained in a density 100 million per milliliter, it is necessary to create a concentrate by putting the liquid through a centrifuge or filter process. From that the final product must be formed, mixing in the additives necessary to assure the bacteria's longevity and its adhesion to the leaves. Afterwards, it must be packaged, distributed and used.

The preparation comes in both liquid and dry forms, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. The drying process is costly, but the final product has an active life of five years. In liquid form, various stabilizers must be added a cheaper process than drying but the product has only one year of use life. Which form is chosen depends on the use to which the formula is to be put. In Nicaragua, research on and ability to use both processes has been developed.

For several years, this young and enthusiastic Nicaraguan research team directed its efforts towards the most commonly found caterpillar plagues in national agriculture, given the interest in using Bt immediately. This is also the most studied and internationally known area, upon which much experimentation has been done and scientific literature published. But research was also done on anti coleopteran and anti mosquito Bt strains. All went forward at a relatively brisk pace, supported by the Nicaraguan government, which was also interested in avoiding the drain of foreign exchange for the import of Bt based pesticides, as well as in opening the country to the wide biotechnological horizon.

After six years of work, Anderson's team had produced a book of scientific theory and an insecticide product whose destructive capacity was demonstrated in experimental plots and a number of studies. The team was on the brink of a qualitative leap, which would mean the change from research to industrial production and accompanying sales on both domestic and international markets. These sales would bring income that could be reinvested in new research to diversify the supply and bring out new products.

The future was promising. An injection of economic assistance was needed to carry out the final research stage on industrial level rather than laboratory level production. And it was there. Denmark was interested in supporting the project and expressed willingness to finance it, contributing the necessary equipment to carry out the final experiments and begin new areas of research as well. An experimental laboratory worth more than $400,000, financed by Canada and Germany, was already functioning in Nicaragua. Everything was ready to make Nicaragua a leader in Latin American scientific research into biotechnological insecticides and their production.

1990: The Moment of Truth

The 1990 change in government in Nicaragua cut short that possibility. Importing Bt based preparations is good business for some they are in high demand because food products treated with them instead of chemical insecticides are more easily exported to the United States.

Although the Chamorro government found everything in place and the industry could have generated significant wealth as well as many jobs, personal interests won out over the national good in the end.

The interest that Hercasa the big insecticide plant in Nicaragua showed in the fledgling industry was also to no avail. Hercasa, much criticized for the high toxicity of its products and with unused plant capacity due to the banning of one of those products, wanted to improve its image and its slipping profits, but this conflicted with the interests of a group of large scale importers linked to high level officials in the new government.

Nor was it possible to cover the research team and its work with the mantle of the university whose autonomy could serve as a shield even though the national universities were willing to fight for the project. They were well aware that it was profitable and was endangered by the new political turn Nicaragua had taken.

"Made in the USA" Is Better

Nothing worked. The decision made in favor of some personal interests was also laced with an anti national inferiority complex: biological insecticides are already being imported from the United States and, though the product can now supposedly be manufactured in Nicaragua, it couldn't possibly be as good as one made in the United States. Those who made the decision were not interested in the research findings that showed Nicaraguan Bt to be superior, particularly in these tropical climes, to the wide application strains the US exports around the world.

For two years, and with no salary, Todd fought for the project, knocking on doors, speaking with anyone who would listen to him. But there was nothing to be done. In 1992, he surrendered to the reality that the new government either didn't understand or didn't want to understand.

Meanwhile, Canada, responding to its commitments, sent new machinery for the project. These machines whose purpose remains a mystery to our government officials are still packed away in some forgotten corner of some warehouse, deteriorating. The reactives that came with them for the new research expired, still in their boxes.
The money to get the research underway was never disbursed because the Nicaraguan counterpart the Chamorro government never fulfilled its end of the bargain. The research team itself dispersed, everybody looking for a new job. The equipment sits where it was, gathering dust and insects that are of no use to anybody.

Given the virulence and extension of the dengue, cholera and malaria epidemics that have been hitting Nicaragua so hard for a number of months now, the Ministry of Health requested the lab's old 15 liter bioreactor to produce as much Bt concentrate against mosquitoes as possible. But to resolve this pressing health problem, Nicaragua would need a number of 15,000 liter reactors. They would have been purchased and on line had it not been for the avarice and myopia of those who killed the project. After months of pathetic efforts, the Ministry of Health realized that it could not take on a hurricane with a paper fan and left the exhausted bioreactor to rest in peace.

And Todd?

Todd Anderson is still in Nicaragua. He made his living until recently teaching English classes, but is now employed as a science professor, somewhat more in his line. He hasn't lost the hope of once again bringing together the dispersed team and equipment, unpacking the machines that arrived four years ago and continuing the research to begin industrial production. "It wouldn't be easy to bring together all the elements again, but it's not impossible, either," he declares with optimism. "It would be an effort, but one worth making, don't you think?"

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Geoculture: The Key to Understanding Haiti?

BT: Chronicle of an Opportunity Lost

Will Economics and Politics Keep Playing at the Same Table?

El Salvador
Archbishop Rivera y Damas: Wit the Light of Bishop Romero

Three Stubborn Women Confront Impunity

The New Look of the "Red Package"

Top Down Economic Plan Designed for Few

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development