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Biologist receive 12 million crowns from EU

A project that involves five European universities and four companies will mass-produce insect pheromones cheaply and biologically. The project aims at making these pheromones available on a large scale, and to replace poisonous insecticides in the fight against harmful bugs and other insects that threaten crops and forests.
Two butterflies.
Christer Löfstedt and his colleagues have studied the butterflies' pheromones for almost 30 years. Now the results will be used in large scale production of insect pheromones. Photo: Christer Löfstedt

Christer Löfstedt, professor at the Department of Biology at Lund University, is one of the research leaders behind the project. He now receives more than twelve million Swedish crowns from EU’s research programme Horizon 2020. The total grant from Horizon 2020 towards the project is 5.4 million euro, more than 50 million Swedish crowns.

The project OLEFINE can change the market for insecticides based on pheromones. The production costs will be a lot lower compared to today’s way of using chemicals in the production process. According to Christer Löfstedt OLEFINE will lead to new jobs within the biotech sector in Europe.

Pheromones are expensive to produce and use. That is why they are used to protect valuable crops, for example at vineyards and orchards. Biological production on a large scale will make the pheromones a lot cheaper to use. In this way the researchers and companies involved in the project calculate that pheromones will be used to protect many other, not so valuable, crops in the near future.

”We will build a ’pheromone brewery’. Using genetically modified yeast we will produce insect pheromones on an industrial scale. Compared to conventional chemical synthesis it is not just a cheaper way of production, it is also more environmentally friendly. It is so-called green chemistry,” says Christer Löfstedt.

For almost 30 years he and his colleagues at the Faculty of Science in Lund have studied female butterflies’ pheromone production. They have mapped the production and identified the genes that code for specific enzymes. Now it is time to put the genes inside yeast and let these yeast factories produce pheromones biologically.

”This is a good example of fundamental research that leads to practical applications,” Christer Löfstedt says.

Pheromones are selective and don’t kill useful insects. Neither do they cause resistance. Pheromones can be used for monitoring purposes as bait in pheromone traps. They can also be used to disturb harmful insects’ mating signals.

The OLEFINE project starts on 1 January 2018 and continues for four years. The total budget for the project is 7.6 million euro.

In addition to the OLEFINE project Christer Löfstedt’s pheromone group at the Department of Biology also works on another project to produce pheromones biologically. This project, Oil Crops for the Future, receives financial support from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and is a collaboration with researchers at SLU in Alnarp i southern Sweden.

”It is about using genetically modified oilseed crops to produce certain fatty acids, which can easily be transformed into active pheromones,” he says.

Jan Olsson

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