Although pest insects may decimate crops, the use of traditional pesticides can definitely harm the environment. Spanish scientists have now developed a possible alternative to those chemicals, in the form of plants that produce insect-confusing 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 the 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 key volatile compounds which are present in the pheromones that female Lepidoptera moths use to attract males. When in caterpillar form, these moths are known to cause extensive damage to crops.

The idea is that the modified Nicotiana benthamiana plants would be added to existing crops – they wouldn’t actually be the crop themselves. When the airborne compounds produced by them were present in large amounts, they would drown out the pheromones produced by the female moths. This means that the males would have difficulty finding those females, so they wouldn’t be able to mate with them. As a result, moth populations within the crops would plummet.

“So far, these pheromones have been obtained by chemical synthesis, and released into the environment by means of biodispensers,” says UPV’s Dr. Diego Orzáez. “What we have achieved is for a model plant to release the pheromone, which is an unquestionably 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 on boosting the emission capacity of the plants.

A paper on the study – which also involved scientists from the Slovenian National Institute of Biology and Spanish company Ecología y Protección Agrícola – was recently published in the journal BioDesign Research.

Source: Universitat Politècnica de València via EurekAlert

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