Sex Attracts: Can Plant Pheromones Control Crop Pests?

14 August 2018

Image Caption

Black ants communicating with each other using antennae and chemical pheromones

Dr Nicola Patron from Norwich Research Park Partner the Earlham Institute is part of Project SUSPHIRE - a SynBio method that aims to produce the first bio manufactured pheromone pesticide. The new plant-based compound will help deter crop pests as a safe, cost-effective, sustainable alternative to harmful pesticides that come at a high price for the agri sector and our environment.

The European team of scientists will use synthetic biology to produce insect sex pheromones in plants and fungi to control insect pests that affect agriculture and horticulture, building on the success of the award-winning iGEM "SexyPlant (SXP)" project, which engineered the production of moth sex-pheromones in plant cells.

Pheromones are already used for pest control through ‘attract and kill’ or mating disruption strategies, but new methods of making these complex molecules are needed. Insect sex pheromones are used to trigger sexual confusion in the target species and prevent them from laying eggs in the crop - a sustainable alternative to conventional, evermore controversial chemical-based pesticides.

The alternative, eco-friendly pheromones can be purified from the plants and used in dispensers. In the future, it may be possible to grow the pheromone-producing plants alongside the crops for wider, more efficient pest control.

Herbivorous insects are responsible for destroying up to 20% of the world’s total crop production every year. Currently, pesticides are one of the primary methods of control, but many insecticides are non-specific and affect pollinators and beneficial species as well as pests, particularly when applied as an aerial spray.

Pheromones are already successfully employed in the control of insect species - have you ever used those sticky yellow strip traps for hanging in the pantry to catch flies and moths? However, many pheromone-based pesticides are difficult to make using current chemical manufacturing costly processes. For most insect species, we don’t know how they make their specific pheromone - in that, we don’t know which insect genes are responsible for making them.

The aim of SUSPHIRE is to identify the insect genes responsible for producing pheromones and then to use those genes to programme plant or fungal cells to make exactly the same pheromone molecules. Therefore, the team are using plants as biological manufacturing platforms - something like a light-powered factory. This will enable them to produce the pheromones at low cost and with much less environmental impact. Within the project, the team will also do a lot of work on improving the yield, aiming to make production as cheap as possible.

To find out more and read the full interview with Dr Nicola Patron click here