Although insect pests can decimate crops, the use of traditional pesticides can certainly harm the environment. Scientists in Spain have now developed a possible alternative to these chemicals, in the form of plants that produce insect-disrupting pheromones.
The study was conducted by a team from the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV) and the Spanish National Research Council. For their study, they chose a plant known as Nicotiana benthamiana, which is closely related to tobacco. Plants in this family are ideal candidates for technology, as they already naturally produce large amounts of volatile compounds.
The researchers produced a genetically modified dwarf version of the plant, which produces and emits two of the main volatile compounds found in pheromones that the female Lepidoptera butterflies use to attract males. In caterpillar form, these butterflies are known to cause significant damage to crops.
The idea is that the modification Nicotiana benthamiana plants would be added to existing crops – they wouldn’t actually be to be the harvest itself. When the airborne compounds produced by them were present in large quantities, they drown out the pheromones produced by female butterflies. This means that the males would have a hard time finding these females, so they couldn’t mate with them. As a result, moth populations in crops would drop.
“Until now, these pheromones have been obtained by chemical synthesis and released into the environment by means of biodistributors”, explains Dr Diego Orzáez of the UPV. “What we have achieved is that a model plant releases the pheromone, which is an undeniably important step towards crop protection, although it is still too early to transfer these results to the field.”
Among other things, the team is now working to increase the emission capacity of the factories.
A paper about the study – which also involved scientists from the Slovenian National Institute of Biology and the Spanish society Ecología y Protección Agrícola – was recently published in the journal BioDesign Research.