Genetic engineering of tobacco plants so that they produce moth pheromones demonstrates the potential of genetically modified plants to act as factories for the synthesis of insect pheromones, write the authors of a Nature Communications paper.

Pheromones are widely used as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional pesticides for trapping insects and the new work presents an opportunity for the cost-effective production of an environmentally safe alternative to insecticides. The demographic most likely to ban GMOs and tobacco aren't going to be happy, but they aren't happy with most science. Maybe if the work were done with marijuana it would be more acceptable.

The plant-derived compounds described in the paper are very similar to commercially synthesiaed pheromones, and as effective at trapping moths.

Tobacco leaf optimized with Agrobacterium cultures that harbor gene constructs containing genes coding for moth pheromone biosynthesis. Credit: Erling Jirle, Department of Biology, Lund University, Sweden

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.

Christer Löfstedt and colleagues pursued an alternate approach and isolated four key genes involved in pheromone production and express these genes in tobacco plants. They found 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. That means genetically modified plants can not only directly impact pesticide use, by making themselves more resistant to pests, but also in second order fashion by helping to create insect pheromones to research environmentally safe alternatives to insecticides.