Scientists at ISCA, Inc., a green agtech company based in Riverside, California, and their collaborators in Sweden have successfully “grown” insect sex pheromone precursors in genetically modified strains of camelina plants, creating a low-cost source of pheromones needed for sustainable pest control.
The Swedish research team from the Lund University, Swedish Agricultural University, and SemioPlant, modified the genetic code of these plants to contain genes of insects and other organisms that guide the formation of the desired pheromones. The plants produce insect pheromone precursor compounds in their abundant seed oil.
ISCA has grown successive generations of the transgenic camelina plants and developed a prototype product with plant-derived pheromones to control the cotton bollworm moth (Helicoverpa armigera), a pest species that causes damage to cotton, corn, tomato, chickpea, and other crops.
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Results from an initial trial in Brazil showed that the ISCA formulation with plant-derived pheromones performed just as well as a formulation with pheromones made from standard chemical synthesis techniques. Both suppressed H. armigera populations in bean fields by preventing adult moths from mating. ISCA is also developing plant-derived pheromone controls for the fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, another devastating moth species.
According to ISCA, pheromones are among the next generation of insect controls because they protect crops by manipulating the behavior of problem insects, such as by preventing them from mating or by repelling them away from crops. Unlike conventional insecticides, pheromone controls affect only the targeted pest species – leaving bees and other wildlife unharmed. Additionally, pheromones do not leave harmful residues on food produce, cause little or no environmental pollution, and are far less prone to pest resistance.
The costs of synthesizing pheromones, however, have limited their application. By having plants do most of the synthesis work, pheromone production costs will be slashed, ISCA says. Biosynthesis in plants also eliminates the need to use petroleum-based chemicals as feedstock and bypasses most of the complex organic chemistry steps that are now required in pheromone manufacturing.