The genetic engineering of tobacco plants to produce moth pheromones is explored this week in Nature Communications. Pheromones are widely used as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional pesticides for trapping insects. The plant-derived compounds described here are very similar to commercially synthesised pheromones, and as effective at trapping moths.
Synthetic pheromones are produced in large amounts and this commercial process not only requires the use of hazardous chemicals, but can also generate dangerous waste by-products. Perusing an alternative approach, Christer Lofstedt and colleagues isolate four key genes involved in pheromone production and express these genes in tobacco plants. They show that the resulting fatty alcohol-based products closely mimic the natural sex pheromones produced by two moths: Yponomeuta evonymella and Yponomeuta padella.
The authors further show that the plant-derived pheromones, which can be produced in large quantities, match the efficacy of commercially produced pheromones for trapping moths in a field experiment. This study demonstrates the potential of genetically modified plants to act as factories for the synthesis of insect pheromones and presents an opportunity for the cost-effective production of an environmentally safe alternative to insecticides.