If you want to reduce the population of insect pests in agriculture, one way is to confuse the males so that they can’t find the females to mate with. This can be done by manipulating pheromones – the secreted chemicals that attract males – but their production has generally been too expensive to allow widespread use. BioPhero, a spin-off the Technical University of Denmark created in 2016, has now come up with a way to produce pheromones at an affordable cost. Technologist spoke to Irina Borodina, founder and research director, and Kristian Ebbensgaard, CEO, after BioPhero raised €3 million.
Technologist: How did you come up with the idea?
Irina Borodina: It came in 2013 when I met two experts in Greece. They emphasised that the high cost of pheromone chemical synthesis was a major barrier for wider application of pheromones in agriculture.
Back in Denmark, our mission became to create a proprietary biotechnology method that would enable low-cost production of pheromones. From the beginning, the vision was to bring the costs to a level where pheromones would no longer be restricted to the protection of expensive ecological fruits but could be used broadly, even for the protection of row crops, such as maize and soybeans.
T.: How do you create the pheromone that can be used as a substitute for chemical pesticides?
I.B.: It’s all about metabolic engineering. Insects can produce pheromones naturally because they have specialised enzymes that execute the biosynthesis. We expressed these enzymes in yeast, enabling it to produce different insect pheromones. These engineered yeasts can now be fermented in large tanks, similar to those used for beer brewing, but instead of ethanol they will produce pheromones. Pheromones are then extracted and purified and are ready for use. This biotechnological process is the same as the one used to produce enzymes for food and washing powder, and insulin for diabetes.
T.: How does the product confuse the pests?
I.B.: With our technology, yeast cells can produce sex pheromones that are identical to the ones that the female insects secrete to attract males. When the pheromones are distributed in the field, the insect males are confused and fail to find females. The unfertilised females cannot lay eggs, and no larvae emerge that would damage the crops.
This technique is called mating disruption, and it is both efficient and environmentally friendly. It does not affect beneficial insects or birds and does not leave residues on the crops. It is also safe to apply for growers, in contrast to toxic insecticides.
T.: How will you use the new funding of €3 million?
Kristian Ebbensgaard: This seed investment will accelerate BioPhero’s operations and the next steps of our product development as we bring pheromones to the market in the next couple of years.
T.: What is the market potential?
K.E.: There is an established market for pheromones, primarily in high-value crops like apples, grapes, and other fruits, but with relatively limited acreage. BioPhero’s vision is to enable the use of pheromones in row-crop applications, which will be a very different market, characterized by higher volumes and lower price points to the grower.
The long-term market potential is enormous because pheromones are a credible solution to some of the critical issues facing agricultural technology today, particularly the rising resistance of pests to insecticides and GMO-crop traits. It will take some time for this new market to develop. But once the effective and affordable mating disruption products become available for row crops, the market potential could be around several billion euros. The hectare footprint could be several magnitudes larger than today’s applications.
T.: Who are the potential clients?
K.E.: Our future product is a sustainable solution. The technology being developed will help protect row crops, such as soy fields in Brazil, from the cotton bollworm and maize in Africa from the fall armyworm. Ultimately, the customers are the growers using the pheromone products in their fields.
However, BioPhero is also part of a long value chain for agricultural technology, and we believe all players in the value chain will benefit. We’ll supply the active ingredients, while others will supply specialised formulation technologies, and yet others will distribute the products together with their integrated pest-management solutions.
T.: What are the next steps?
I.B.: Together with our partners in the Horizon 2020 project OLEFINE, we also want to participate in a collective awareness of the need for natural insecticides. With pheromones, we can revolutionise the pest management in agriculture to provide healthy food without polluting and destroying the ecosystem. In Africa and South America, farmers are facing increasingly resistant insects due to the use of insecticides, resulting in ever-increasing use of chemicals. By bringing our products to market, we also bring a new way of sustainable pest control.