Professor’s work on tiny insects has big IPM impact

Sebastien Jacob knows well the big magic that a tiny insect can work.

It was 21 years ago while employed as a newly minted university graduate at a federal agriculture research station that Jacob learned how a microscopic parasitoid wasp called Trichogramma could have a huge impact protecting food crops and the environment.

Trichogramma could take on the European corn borer, considered one of the greatest pests to corn crops, by laying eggs on a corn borer and letting its larvae feast on the pest to kill it. In the process, Trichogramma showed itself to be a cornerstone of integrated pest management (IPM) plans with its predatory nature helping growers reduce their dependence on chemical pesticides to control crop-destroying insects.

Most fascinating to Jacob was how Trichogramma could determine certain traits about a pest and use that information to choose the sex of their eggs to lay on it and best propagate their species.

“That got the bug thing in me and it was very cool to me,” Jacob says. “In the insect world, (parasitoids) are one of the best pest control agents.”

From then on, Jacob, who originally had aspirations to be an ice and rock-climbing guide, has devoted his career to getting others turned on to biocontrols — controlling pests with other organisms — and how they can often solve pest problems that their chemical counterparts can’t.

Jacob worked as an integrated pest and disease management specialist for most of his career, espousing the merits of biocontrols and IPM to growers in North, Central and South America.

His efforts, along with those of his industry colleagues, have made a difference; for example, 10 years ago, only 20% of growers in floriculture, the predominant greenhouse sector in Niagara, were using biocontrols and relying mostly on chemical sprays. Today, around 95% use beneficial organisms in their operations, Jacob notes.

These days, he still sells growers on the benefits of biocontrols and IPM. But he’s doing it as a professor in Niagara College’s Horticulture, Greenhouse and Commercial Cannabis Production programs, reaching the sector’s future players.

He’s also effecting industry change as a researcher in the College’s Horticultural & Environmental Sciences Innovation Centre (HESIC), where he tackles questions about IPM for cannabis, in particular. His work holds the potential to shape industry practices, given the newness of commercial cannabis production in Canada and the lack of knowledge about the impacts of spraying.

Most recently, Jacob and his students have worked on a HESIC project with the company BioWorks to test the safety and efficacy of a biocontrol that can be used to control the rice root aphid in greenhouse cannabis production. He and his students have also tested the efficacy of a predatory mite on rice root aphids on behalf of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and the Canadian biocontrol supply company Applied Bionomics with the intention of bringing it to market.

All the while, students are learning what they need to do when it’s their time to enter the industry.

“Students are thinking about this and learning it’s not just bringing clones into a greenhouse but ensuring they’re clean,” Jacob says. “The principles of IPM are easy to teach on a slide but they’re not very easy to implement.”

Balancing research and teaching keeps Jacob busy. When time does allow, however, he still bugs out over rock and ice climbing. Among his favourite places to escape from the lab: the Sierra Nevada; Squamish, British Columbia; Cirque of the Unclimables; and Yosemite National Park.

Sometimes he chooses flat surfaces to blow off steam, taking to the soccer pitch, previously to coach, now to play.

Mostly, though, his attention is rapt by how small organisms can solve big problems in horticulture.

“It’s just the nature of research,” Jacob says. “IPM is always complex.”