Ecopesticides starts field tests of new method to stop crop-destroying insects

A New Mexico startup company has begun field tests to prove they can kill desert locusts in Africa using a natural bio-pesticide technology developed at the University of New Mexico. The company, founded by two UNM physicians, is taking on one of the oldest problems in history, the desert locust swarms that can completely destroy food crops in Africa.

They plan to kill the locusts by getting them to eat fungi that are naturally lethal to them. The idea is to encase the fungi in tiny spheres and spread them on fields of crops. The polymer spheres protect the fungi, which thrive in cool dark, humid places, from the dryness and ultraviolet rays of the desert sun until the locusts arrive in the fields. The locusts begin eating the fungi along with the crops and die.

“It’s all about timing,” Chief Science Officer of Ecopesticides Ravi Durvasula said. “If we could find a way basically to protect those natural compounds, those fungi a little longer – How much longer? A week longer, two weeks longer? We don’t know until we test it in the sites in Africa.

“But if we can have it last a little longer, presumably you would need to use less of it. And in these are subsistence farms, where literally every dollar counts, being able to put it out less frequently, maybe being able to store it a little bit longer would help. So we are trying to develop some heat tolerance as well. It would make a huge difference in this part of the world. And so that’s really the goal…”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is responsible for inspiring two physicians in New Mexico to think about locusts in Africa. The foundation has a major initiative to increase food security in Africa and the opportunity for a grant turned Durvasula and Adam Forshaw’s interest from the human impact of disease carrying insects to the human impact of crop destroying insects.

Durvasula is a physician and the director of the Paratransgenesis Lab in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Health Sciences Center at UNM. His research interest is exploring ways to genetically alter bacteria that can be inserted into insects to interrupt the infectious agent that allows transmission to humans. He began his research and teaching at Yale University more than a decade ago, eventually moving to UNM.

He was pleased to welcome Forshaw, a medical student with a background in chemistry, to his lab in 2012. Forshaw was doing the research portion of his medical degree and together, they went to work to find a way to disrupt the way sandflies transmit Leishmania parasites to humans. Durvasula was able to control the parasite in the laboratory, but the challenge was to control it in the field. Forshaw thought they might be able to use a chemical polymer to create small capsules to encase bacteria that transmit disease into insects.

That’s when the Gates Foundation grant opportunity turned the research in a different direction. Forshaw and Durvasula saw that their interest in controlling parasitic pests could be shifted to controlling crop destroying pests.

RTFA for more about how these two medical doctors transformed their research from infectious diseases to providing enough food to bring folks a healthy life.

Here’s the website home for Ecopesticides to check our their commitment and mssion.

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