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June 8th, 2018 / The Guardian, UK

“Sexy plants” are on the way to replacing many harmful pesticides, scientists say, by producing the sex pheromones of insects which then frustrate pests’ attempts to mate.

Scientists have already genetically engineered a plant to produce the sex pheromones of moths and are now optimising that, as well as working on new pheromones such as those of the mealybugs that plague citrus growers.

Sex pheromones are already used to protect some higher-value crops, such as tomatoes and berries. But the complex molecules are currently produced by chemical synthesis, which is expensive.

The new work uses a plant as a bio-factory, powered by the sun. Other researchers are also working on brewing sex pheromones using genetically modified yeast, a process already widely used to make, for example, insulin for diabetic patients.

Existing pesticides often harm both pests and beneficial insects, such as bees. Some are now pervasive in the environment around the world and are partly to blame for crashing insect populations. The world’s most widely used insecticides, neonicotinoids, were banned from outdoor use by the European Union in April. In contrast, pheromones are specific to each species and, being used in tiny amounts in fields, do not contaminate the wider area. Read more