U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 89 (2005) 19–29.


In 125 years since Metchnikoff proposed the use of Metarhizium anisopliae to control the wheat cockchafer and brought about the first field trials, microbial control has progressed from the application of naturalists’ observations to biotechnology and precision delivery. This review highlights major milestones in its evolution and presents a perspective on its current direction. Fungal pathogens, the most eye-catching agents, dominated the early period, but major mycological control efforts for chinch bugs and citrus pests in the US had questionable success, and interest waned. The discoveries of Bacillus popilliae and Bacillus thuringiensis began the era of practical and commercially viable microbial control. A program to control the Japanese beetle in the US led to the discovery of both B. popilliae and Steinernema glaseri, the first nematode used as a microbial control agent. Viral insect control became practical in the latter half of the 20th century, and the first registration was obtained with the Heliothis nuclear polyhedrosis virus in 1975. Now strategies are shifting for microbial control. While Bt transgenic crops are now planted on millions of hectares, the successes of more narrowly defined microbial control are mainly in small niches. Commercial enthusiasm for traditional microbial control agents has been unsteady in recent years. The prospects of microbial insecticide use on vast areas of major crops are now viewed more realistically. Regulatory constraints, activist resistance, benign and efficacious chemicals, and limited research funding all drive changes in focus. Emphasis is shifting to monitoring, conservation, integration with chemical pesticides, and selection of favorable venues such as organic agriculture and countries that have low costs, mild regulatory climates, modest chemical inputs, and small scale farming.