Imagine a farmer with a tank of solution full of microscopic worms that have been “triggered” to be especially hungry for an insect host. That farmer releases those hungry microscopic worms to kill the pests that want to eat his or her crop.
No, this isn’t science fiction. It’s nematology.
Nematodes are the among most abundant multi-cellular organisms on earth. If that comes as a shock to you it’s probably because most are microscopic so you don’t even know the worm-like creatures are there.
Although not visible to the human eye, nematodes can have a huge impact on food production. Some species, such as the root knot nematode, infect plants and can destroy yields. Others attack insect pests which can beneficial to farmers.
One of the ways nematodes communicate with each other is through pheromones. These are secretions that elicit various behaviors, like to eat, to migrate, to forage or to reproduce.
Pheromones are signals that are used among many organisms. It is secreted from one member and affects the behavior of other members of the same species.
Putting Nematodes to Work Against Insect Pests
Pheronym has been able to identify, extract, and isolate pheromones that can help us manage nematodes in an agricultural environment.
But this is way more interesting than just spraying them with a harmful chemical, like we used to do with methyl bromide before it was banned.
For example, Pheronym has a product called Nemastim that actually gets beneficial nematodes “in the mood” to find an insect host. These are nematodes that enter into insect pests and ultimately kill them.
Beneficial Nematode + “Find a Host” Pheromone = A lot of Dead Insect Pests
Essentially, they get these nematodes “chomping at the bit” to find an insect host and set them loose by spraying them on the crop. The nematodes then find (and kill) more pests. This is completely natural and biological. In initial trials, the pheromone-applied nematodes killed 50%–190% more pests than if they didn’t receive the pheromone.
Plant Parasitic Nematodes
For plant-parasitic nematodes, the ones that eat our crops, we need to send a very different message. Pheronym is developing a product to apply to the coating of a seed that tells root knot nematode that the plant is already infected, making it a poor host choice.. This way, the nematode stays away during the susceptible germination period.
Pheronym went through a few accelerator-type program including IndieBio, which focuses on startups in the life sciences that have at least one PhD on their founding team.
Kaplan and Schiller plan to continue to roll out more biological solutions working with both beneficial and plant parasitic nematodes. I encourage you to listen to the full interview on the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast.