• Research

Sustainable bioproduction of insect pheromones for pest control in agriculture

We are developing low-cost manufacturing platforms for the production of insect pheromones for the control of insect pests of agriculture and horticulture as a sustainable alternative to conventional pesticides.

Project summary.

Led by: Patron Group

Start date: April 2018

End date: April 2021

Duration: 36 months

Value: €1,861,000

Grants: ERA-CoBioTech BB/R021554/1

Some of the most aggressive pests of agriculture are insect larvae. These are frequently controlled by applying pesticides, which are progressively being restricted due to concerns about their non-specificity and negative impact on biodiversity.  Insect sex pheromones, produced by virgin females to attract mates of the same species, present a sustainable alternative to conventional pesticides. Pheromones are already used for insect control by dispensing in plant production environments to trigger sexual confusion in the target species preventing them from breeding and laying eggs within the crop, thereby providing a highly species-specific control method.
Chemical synthesis is currently the only approach for manufacturing insect pheromones. This method sometimes uses toxic ingredients or creates toxic by-product. Further, the unusual chemical characteristics of many insect pheromones mean that chemical synthesis strategies are not cost effective. For example, the sex pheromones of aggressive Coccoidea pests (scale insects and mealybugs) for which better control methods are highly desirable, have unusual structures for which chemical synthesis is both difficult and expensive.
 
SUSPHIRE aims to provide a sustainable, low-cost biomanufacturing platform for the commercial production of insect pheromones.

Details.

SUSPHIRE will make use of synthetic biology tools, in combination with systems biology and bioinformatics to establish economically-viable methods for the biosynthesis of insect pheromones and their precursors in plants and filamentous fungi. The feasibility of this approach has been demonstrated in proof-of-concept studies.

Partially or fully pheromones can be extracted from the plant and fungal biomass and incorporated into existing pheromone-dispensers. The system can also be used to produce key precursors or enzymes, bypassing or assisting complex or costly synthetic steps, which can be used to reduce the cost of chemical synthesis.

SUSPHIRE aims to expand the range of pests that can be managed using sustainable, environmentally-friendly, species-specific pest-control systems and reduce the environmental impact of commercial production.

Collaborators.

The SUSPHIRE Consortium includes researchers at the Earlham Institute in the UK; The Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMCP), Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology, Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV) and About Ecología y Protección Agricola (EPA), in Spain; The National Institute of Biology (NIB) in Slovenia; and Technische Universität (TU) Darmstadt in Germany.

Impact statement.

The introduction of biotechnology approaches to pheromone production will expand the use of sex pheromones for sustainable pest control in agriculture, reducing its environmental impact. Pesticides, which are progressively being restricted due to concerns about their non-specificity and negative impact on biodiversity. In contrast, pheromones are species specific and are dispensed in small amounts into the air, leaving no residues on food crops. However, many pheromones are expensive and difficult to produce -  the biotechnology approaches in this project offers novel low-cost and sustainable platforms for production.