Engineered Tobacco Produces Moth Sex Pheromones

Researchers at the Earlham Institute in Norwich have turned tobacco plants into solar-powered factories for moth sex pheromones using genetic engineering techniques.

The team at Earlham Institute worked with scientists at the Plant Molecular and Cell Biology Institute in Valencia, Spain to engineer N. benthamiana, a species of tobacco, to produce the sex pheromones of two moths. N. benthamiana has previously been engineered to produce ebola antibodies and even coronavirus-like particles for use in COVID-19 vaccines.

Pheromones are chemicals that organisms use for communication. The research team built new DNA sequences to mimic the moth genes and introduced molecular switches to precisely regulate their expression. The team tested and refined the control of genes responsible for producing the mix of specific molecules that mimic the sex pheromones of moth species, including navel orangeworm and cotton bollworm moths.

They found that copper sulfate could be used to finely tune the activity of the genes to control both the timing and level of gene expression. Copper sulfate is a readily-available compound already approved for use in agriculture. They were even able to carefully control the production of different pheromone components, which allowed them to tweak the cocktail to better suit specific moth species. The researchers hope that their work will pave the way for using plants to produce more valuable natural products in the future.

Kallam et al. 2023 Tunable control of insect pheromone biosynthesis in Nicotiana benthamiana. Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Source: Crop Biotech Update


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