Biodegradable pest control

A US company has licensed an environmentally friendly, patent-pending biodegradable technology from the University of Alabama that it now hopes to deploy to control moths that can damage crops.

Dr Rusty Sutterlin and his newly formed company, Sutterlin Technologies, is targeting the brown codling moth – a pest to farmers around the planet.

Sutterlin said his company’s initial target market – apple growers – are ready for relief from the winged insects, whose larva sometimes appears as unwanted worm-like additions within apples.

The novel insect population reducer works by disrupting the insects’ mating patterns through the use of insect pheromones that the tiny creatures emit to entice and locate mates.

While using synthetic pheromones to reduce insect populations is in itself not new, the standard means of delivering pheromone is quickly falling out of favour, Sutterlin added, because of either environmental concerns or the labour-intensive steps necessary to use them.

The company’s new biodegradable approach centres on the use of pectin, a complex carbohydrate naturally occurring in fruits, including apples, and some vegetables. Used in jam production to provide the jelly-like consistency, pectin, it turns out, is adept at binding with the pheromones and later releasing them it as it degrades harmlessly in the fields.

’We take the pectin and chemically modify it,’ Sutterlin said. ’Then, we add the insect pheromone, encapsulating the pheromone in the pectin.’

Apple growers could mix the resulting powder with water and spray it on their fields using standard spraying equipment. As the pheromone is released, the insects would then be confused by the many scents that blanket the orchards and would be unable to locate mates.

’Growers are not going to see dead moths like they would with traditional insecticides,’ Sutterlin said. ’Any observations are not going to be made until the next year. The bugs don’t die. The mating season does not occur, so the next season, there are no bugs.’

Also, unlike traditional insecticides, the technique does not randomly kill harmless or commercially helpful insects and poses no environmental risks, Sutterlin added.

Sutterlin is now applying for state and federal small business research grants and seeking private investors as funding sources to enable the company to conduct field trials of the product.