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A new kind of pheromone to control agricultural pests

Karl Cameron Schiller is co-founder of Pheronym, a Davis-based agriculture biotech start-up using a new kind of pheromone from microscopic roundworms called nematodes to control agricultural pests. We asked him about his work.

How can nematode pheromones be used in agriculture?

The first use case, which is the closest to market, is called NemaStim for stimulating nematodes to disperse and kill insects. Treating beneficial nematodes with pheromones improves their effectiveness to control insect pests.

We are testing NemaStim in the pecan orchards in Georgia for the pecan weevil, in citrus orchards in Florida for the citrus Diaprepes weevil, and in greenhouses in Israel for thrips. We are also getting ready to test them in hops yards in Idaho for the Prionus beetle – underground insects that cause damage to our plants, trees, or hops through the roots. These nematodes will burrow down, up to 35 centimeters and start killing the insects. Nemastim is our first product to control insects by improving efficacy of beneficial nematodes.

The second product is called PheroCoat and allows these pheromones to control plant-parasitic nematodes. Plant parasitic nematodes cause $157 billion of crop loss every year. They are big problem pests and cause 12 percent crop loss worldwide. We want to reduce those losses, so farmers can produce more food to feed the growing population.

We are signalling to the plant-parasitic nematodes that the plant has already been taken over by a lot of nematodes. For PheroCoat, we’re focusing on sedentary nematodes. Once they choose a host, there is no going back. They have to select the best host they can. They go into the plant roots, and redirect the nutrients to reproduce more nematodes. Of course this reduces the crop yield. PheroCoat tells them that the plant has already been infected by other nematodes, it is not a healthy host, and they should stay away.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in developing these products? How have you overcome them?

Nematode pheromones are very new to the market, so convincing customers that they work just as well as insect pheromones is a challenge. Education and farm demonstrations will be key. Recently, two reputable laboratories showed that nematode pheromones can stimulate beneficial nematodes behaviour and increase their efficacy between 28% and 78%. You can read the article here.

Our pheromones are water soluble. This is different from insect pheromones, which are commercially available, volatile compounds to control insect pests. Since they are water soluble, nematode pheromones offer expanded market opportunities for pest control with novel applications such as modifying the behaviour of predators or indicating host status. We can apply them, for instance, with the seeds to tell the host status. We’ve just been discussing putting the pheromones on the coating of the seed so when they’re planted, they will repel the parasitic nematodes while the plants are young and vulnerable.

What’s the regulatory environment like with the nematode pheromone?

We are working with EPA consultants to navigate through the regulatory environment. In terms of the pheromones for beneficial nematodes, we are using these pheromones to change the behaviour of the biopesticide, not targeting the pest itself, therefore it is not a pesticide. With the plant parasitic nematode product, we will be working with EPA consultant.

What are your next steps with these products?

We have begun recruiting partners to both test and sell our products. We have ongoing field and greenhouse trials right now with NemaStim, our first product for beneficial nematodes. These are with commercial clients. We are working on scaling up our production and bringing our first product to market. Once we have that up and running, we plan to further the plant parasitic nematode product.

 

Karl Cameron Schiller, Chief Operating Officer, Pheronym, will be speaking on biocontrol with nematode pheromones at the 4th Partnerships in Biocontrol, Biostimulants & Microbiome Congress: USA.

 

Interested in knowing more? Download the agenda for the 4th Partnerships in Biocontrol, Biostimulants & Microbiome Congress: USA and co-located 7th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress.

 

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