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Biopesticides generate buzz at annual Ag Innovation Showcase

CREVE COEUR, Mo. — New biological pesticides for food, feed and fiber crops continue attracting attention from researchers, biotechnology startups and agricultural technology companies.

TechAccel, a Kansas City tech and venture development company focused in agriculture and animal health, last week announced $60,000 in support for commercialization of a biopesticide in development at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The project involves developing a sprayable system to deliver RNA interference (RNAi) technology for controlling the Diamondback moth, a key pest of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower.

The announcement coincided with the Ag Innovation Showcase, held at the Danforth Center.

RNA interference technology is well-known in agriculture; it is the tech in Bt corn varieties that introduces RNA molecules into insects that eat the plant. Those RNA molecules trigger enzymes in the insect that “turn off” manufacture of certain proteins it needs for survival.

The Diamondback moth control, dubbed Danforth Biosprey by researchers, will deliver RNA interference technology through a crop spray, functioning like a synthetic insecticide. That would bypass genetically modifying (GMO) crops, as the RNAi is sprayed onto fields.

The concept starts with cruciferous vegetables but might quickly extend to field corn, soybeans and other row crops. “A logical next step might include an expansion of the platform, perhaps testing effectiveness of a biopesticide for armyworms, earworms and other insect pests,” said Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., president and chief executive of TechAccel.

“Additionally, we believe the sprayable solution could make the new technology immediately attractive to major crop producers.”

Researchers are also looking at natural enemies of insects for new pest control solutions. Vestaron, a Michigan-based company, identifies hundreds of different peptides contained in the venom of insect predators, such as spiders and scorpions.

“These organisms typically eat insects,” said John Sorenson, CEO of Vestaron. “That seems like a logical place to look for biological insecticides, and that’s what we do.”

Vestaron looks for thousands of genes contained in excretions of natural insect predators, putting those genes into yeast, to develop possible biological pesticides. The company does not just focus on biological controls, applying its research across the spectrum of crop protection products, to possibly develop new GMO crops as well as new synthetic pesticides.

“We have tools now to really look at active sites of these proteins, and we scan databases of those (proteins) that have the same shape, the same conformation, the same configuration,” said Sorenson.

The company then identifies chemicals, with those modes of action, that could be used as synthetic insect controls. Such synthetics could be fairly rapidly rolled out for commodity crop protection. Early returns for biological pesticides can be greater in high-value crops, such as ornamentals and produce.

Vestaron has licensed its Spear formulation to companies creating products for control of thrips, beetles and caterpillars. Some of the company’s early products focus on commercial greenhouse production, according to Sorenson.