INNOVATOR SPOTLIGHT: PHERONYM – DIRECTED PLANT PROTECTION

September 15, 2018 | By Leanna Sweha

Pheronym is an ag biotech startup that uses nematode pheromones to control beneficial and parasitic nematodes. The firm is located in Alachua, Florida and at the UC Davis HM.CLAUSE Life Sciences Innovation Center in Davis, California.  

Pheronym has two products in development – NemaStim and PheroCoat. It recently won a $300,000 Florida-Israel Innovation Partnership Award to fund field testing of Nemastim to increase beneficial nematode effectiveness for controlling insect pests in a variety of crops. Their second product, PheroCoat, protects plants from plant parasitic nematodes.

We visited with Pheronym CEO and co-founder Dr. Fatma Kaplan to learn more about her startup story.

What are nematode pheromones and why are they useful for crop protection?

Pheromones are chemical signals that many organisms use in social interaction. Nematode pheromones drive social behaviors like mate finding, aggregation, and dispersal. They are also developmental cues. For example, they can signal that conditions are harsh so that the next generation enters a hardy state, tolerant of harsh conditions.

We can use these social cues to protect crops from parasitic nematodes (the bad guys that attack plant roots) and to improve the effectiveness of beneficial nematodes that attack plant pests.

Growers currently use beneficial nematodes for insect control. How does NemaStim make them work better?

NemaStim is a pre-treatment mixture that tells beneficial nematodes that they are too crowded, they don’t have enough food, and that they need to search out new insect targets. Commercially available beneficial nematodes often lack these signals, and when farmers apply them, they stay in one place and don’t search and attack very well. The real power we provide comes from soaking the nematodes in our product before the nematodes are applied to crops, which results in a 3 to 5 fold increase in effectiveness.  

Here’s an example of the power of NemaStim with beneficial nematodes. If you are spraying for insects in an orchard but the pesticide fails to contact the insect, it won’t kill it.  But nematodes can penetrate and cure an infestation inside the roots of a tree – and with NemaStim, they do this even more effectively because they are actively searching for insects.

Can you tell us about greenhouse demonstrations as a part of your strategy for NemaStim in the greenhouse market?

In 2017, we were awarded an SBIR grant for NemaStim trials in both soil and greenhouses. We recently completed these proof-of-concept greenhouse trials.

Now, we are reaching out to greenhouse growers with our results, both current and potential customers.

Here in California, we are actively seeking local greenhouse growers to test NemaStim. Currently, we have a letter of intent from Miraculex, a specialty greenhouse grower.  

We also are setting up greenhouse trials in Europe and Israel.

Methyl bromide was used for years to control parasitic nematodes in many high value California crops but has been phased out because of its toxicity. Is PheroCoat a replacement for methyl bromide?

Our original idea and ultimate goal is to protect plant roots from parasitic nematodes using nematode pheromones. When I first identified these pheromones from the model nematode C. elegans, we thought we could apply them to the nematodes that cause massive damage like root knot nematodes.  The timing was right because methyl bromide was being phased out and farmers needed another way to control root knot.

My research at USDA was to apply pheromones to plant parasitic nematodes, and we did identify a mating pheromone that seemed to have promise. But, root knot nematodes don’t use sex pheromones. That’s when we realized it would not be so simple.

So, we looked at other behaviors like dispersal and were able to show that pheromones regulate dispersal. We showed we could use dispersal pheromones to make C. elegans leave perfectly good food. We were then able to use these pheromones to repel root knot nematodes from the plant roots they infect and eat.

From here we developed PheroCoat, which is a pheromone seed treatment.

Treating seeds with PheroCoat will be very effective, because nematodes prefer uninfected healthy young plants.

What is the current status of PheroCoat?

We are in the proof of concept phase, which involves raising funds for small scale field trials and developing a prototype for testing.

We have a lot of interest from seed companies in the EU. Seed enhancement companies are also interested, because there are the companies that add protectant seed coating.

California is such a great state because of the many seed companies here. We are confident we can establish a great network and eventually target the major row crops.

What resources in California have been most beneficial?

California is a heaven for startups, because every aspect is supported. When we came to San Francisco as an IndieBio participant, we did not intend to stay because we didn’t know the environment.  We quickly realized just how good the agriculture market is here, but we still did not know where to locate for the long term.

Through our IndieBio experience and the support ecosystem there, we were introduced to Dr. John Lindbo and the UC Davis – HM.CLAUSE Innovation Center. We also connected to other mentorship programs, like the California Life Science Institute FAST Advisory Program, where we met our business mentors Dr. Pam Marrone and Dr. Zach Wochok, both of Marrone Bio Innovation.  

Recently, we have attended AgStart workshops, which connected us to the larger California ag network. Every connection here has helped us learn more about how best to market our products.

What specific factors influenced you to set up at the UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center?

We knew we needed to target row crops for PheroCoat and were looking to network with seed companies, seed treatment and crop enhancement companies. These are all in a lot closer in Davis, so this was a big factor.  

The HM.CLAUSE facility is really great. We have access to shared equipment, greenhouses, growth chambers, and facilities. It’s so nice not to have to worry about day to day lab maintenance. We are set up for success there, because they have all the right equipment to allow us to do our proof of concept for PheroCoat.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with UC?

Dr. Edwin Lewis, former UC Davis Professor of Entomology and now Professor of Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences at the University of Idaho, is one of my collaborators. Dr. Lewis, along with Dr. David Shapiro, Research Entomologist at USDA in Georgia are project directors with me on a multi-institutional grant we recently received from USDA-NIFA-AFRI to learn more about improving the efficacy of pheromones for beneficial nematodes.

I understand you have a number of upcoming presentations. How can we learn more?

I will be speaking at  SynBioBeta 2018: The Global Synthetic Biology Summit in San Francisco October 1-3.  We were also selected to present at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London, October 16-17, 2018.

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Pheronym is a VINE community success story and an example of entrepreneurs benefiting from multiple elements of our statewide agriculture and food innovation ecosystem.

New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at hello@thevine.io

About the author: Leanna Sweha is an attorney with an agtech background and is Program Director for AgStart. She is passionate about promoting new sustainable agriculture companies.


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