Growing Insect Pheromones for More Sustainable Pest Control 

RIVERSIDE, Calif. —The next generation of pest control will revolutionize agriculture by harnessing its power from the ancient Viking seed oil plant Camelina to produce inexpensive pheromones.

Pheromones are a viable environmentally friendly alternative to conventional insecticides for pest control. However, pheromone-based pest control products have been restricted to high-value crops, as today’s manufacturing processes cannot yet produce pheromones at low enough costs to enable their use for lower-value crops, especially commodity row crops like corn, soy, and cotton.

A research team from Lund University in Sweden, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and ISCA, Inc., a green agtech company based in Riverside, Calif., has developed a novel path to produce copious amounts of inexpensive pheromone.

By modifying the genetic code of plants to express genes of insects and other organisms that guide the biosynthesis of the desired pheromones, the team has created plants that produce insect pheromone precursor compounds in their abundant seed oil.

Hong-Lei, Christer, Agenor, Bao-Jian in a Camelina Greenhouse. Photo by Teun Dekker.

A report today in Nature Sustainability demonstrates the biological efficacy and economic feasibility of pheromone production in plant factories by metabolic engineering of an oilseed crop.

The team successfully grew Camelina sativa or Camelina seeds genetically modified to make (Z)-11-hexadecenoic acid, a sex pheromone precursor of several moth species, to provide the oil from which the precursor was isolated, purified and transformed into the final pheromone, thus creating a low-cost source of pheromones needed for sustainable pest control of row-crops.

Trap lures and mating disruption formulations containing this plant-derived pheromone were then assessed for their capacity to manage moth pests in the field. Plant-derived pheromone lures proved equally effective as synthetic pheromone lures in monitoring the diamondback moth, Plutella xylostella, in cabbage, and in disrupting mating of cotton bollworm moth, Helicoverpa armigera, in common bean fields.

Diamondback moth devastates brassica crops like cabbage and mustard around the world and has become resistant to most insecticides. Pheromone control is desired and needed for this pest.

Cotton bollworm, like the diamondback moth, is highly resistant to conventional and biological insecticides a major worldwide pest species that causes hundreds of millions of dollars annually in damage to cotton, soy, corn, tomato, beans, chickpea, and other crops.

“We are very excited with this new development. The production and commercialization of ISCA’s sprayable products containing plant-derived pheromones to control key pests will bring relief to growers everywhere,” said ISCA’s CEO Agenor Mafra-Neto. “Pheromone controls are the future of crop protection, and this breakthrough biological pheromone synthesis will propel agriculture into a more lucrative and sustainable enterprise.”

“Plant-based production of pheromones can provide growers with sustainable pest controls that are badly needed,” says Ed Cahoon, the Director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation and professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, “especially now that global agriculture faces increasing pest resistance that renders conventional insecticides less effective and increasing pressure from governments and consumers demanding ever safer and greener food production.”

“We are very happy to see that collaboration with ISCA will bring this innovation to the market for the benefit of environmentally friendly pest control,” said research leader and Lund University Biology Professor Christer Löfstedt, “our goal is to develop plant-based pheromone solutions for the world’s key agricultural pests.”

“In collaboration with ISCA we are developing plant-derived pheromones controls for other pests, like the fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, another devastating moth species.” said Per Hofvander, researcher and professor of the Department of Plant Breeding, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Alnarp, “producing low-cost pheromone by simply growing oil seeds will revolutionize the supply chain dynamics of the entire semiochemical pest control industry.”

Camelina Seeds grown by the team. Photo by Kurt Miller.

Pheromones are among the next generation of insect controls because they protect crops by manipulating the behavior of problem insects, such as by preventing them from mating, by mass trapping or by luring them away from crops. Unlike conventional insecticides, pheromone controls affect only the targeted pest species – leaving beneficial pollinators and other wildlife unharmed. Additionally, pheromones do not leave harmful residues on food produced, cause no environmental pollution, and are far less prone to developing pest resistance.

The costs of synthesizing pheromones, however, have limited their application. By having plants do most of the synthesis work, pheromone production costs will be slashed. Biosynthesis in plants also eliminates the need to use petroleum-based chemicals as feedstock and bypasses most of the complex organic chemistry steps that are now required in pheromone manufacturing.

Camelina is an ancient seed oil plant that was cultivated by the Vikings, a cousin of broccoli and canola. Putting the plant to work to create low-cost sources of insect pheromones is expected to give a big boost to earth-friendly mating disruption controls for several devastating moth species.

In nature, female moths release into the air a species-specific sex pheromone to call males for mating. Applications of formulations with the same pheromone in the field, however, create thousands of pheromone trails that lead to nowhere. This makes it nearly impossible for the male moths to find mates. The females are left to lay sterile eggs, which prevents the next generation of highly damaging caterpillars from hatching, protecting the crops.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact ISCA USA at

About ISCA: ISCA, Inc. is a green agtech company that provides the next generation of insect control products for world agriculture by harnessing the power of pheromones and other semiochemicals that manipulate the behavior of targeted insect species. ISCA’s insect control innovations are environmentally sustainable, cost-effective, and can be applied mechanically to both row and specialty crops. ISCA is headquartered in Riverside, California, and has offices and manufacturing facilities in the United States, and Brazil.

About Lund University: Lund University was founded in 1666 and is repeatedly ranked among the world’s top 100 universities. We are united in our efforts to understand, explain and improve our world and the human condition. Biologist at Lund University have during the last 40 years obtained international recognition for their research on fundamental and applied aspects of insect pheromone communication, including pheromone biosynthesis and biological production of pheromones in yeast and plant factories.

About the Center for Plant Science Innovation & Department of Biochemistry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Plant Science Innovation is an interdisciplinary research and development and training program that aims to translate fundamental research into agricultural innovations that improve the human condition. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Biochemistry is an academic unit that is dedicated to cutting-edge research and excellence in undergraduate and graduate student education and training.

About Department of Plant Breeding, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Alnarp: SLU is a world-class international university with research, education and environmental assessment within the sciences for sustainable life. The Department of Plant Breeding, at SLU in Alnarp, constitutes a multidisciplinary, innovative, and creative environment that works with research, education and innovation. The focus is on activities that are of strategic importance for crops with a sustainable and profitable production of plant-based food, feed and industrial products in a changing climate.