New biological pesticide can kill deadly palm-eating beetle, startup says
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New biological pesticide can kill deadly palm-eating beetle, startup says

Israel’s PlantArcBio says it has developed a pesticide with ‘100% efficacy’ to fight the deadly red palm weevil that attacks trees around the world

A healthy palm tree in Raanana, Israel (PlantArcBio)
A healthy palm tree in Raanana, Israel (PlantArcBio)

PlantArcBio Ltd., an Israeli startup operating in the field of agro-technologies, said it has developed an effective biological pesticide to fight a palm-tree-eating beetle — the red palm weevil — that attacks the trees globally.

The biological compound, which was developed in collaboration with an unnamed Israel-based international crop protection company and veteran agricultural researcher Prof. Moshe Bar-Joseph, replicates a specific part of the genetic material of the insect.

When the biological compound was fed directly to the insect, it showed 100% efficacy in killing the red palm weevil larvae within a few days, Dror Shalitin, the founder and CEO of PlantArcBio, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

“The biological insecticide that we have developed will help palm growers to deal much better with this notorious insect,” which poses a “significant threat” to the palm industry in Israel and worldwide, he said.

The companies have patented the compound and now plan to further develop and commercialize it. They expect the first product to hit the market in about three years.

The Red Palm Weevil larvae in the lab of PlantArcBio; the deadly insect attacks palm trees globally (PlantArcBio)

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the red palm weevil is one of the world’s most invasive pest species and the most destructive pest of some 40 palm species worldwide.

The insect attacks palm trees as well as coconut trees. Around 100 million date palm trees are cultivated globally, and the potential damage of the insect without treatment is estimated at millions of dollars.

The FAO in 2017 endorsed a new action plan to stop the spread of the beetle, which it called “a global threat.”

Adult females lay some 300 eggs in holes in a tree, and the larvae chew their way through the tree. Once the crown of the tree is damaged, the palm trees are unable to produce new fronds, and die within a few months.

The insect is found in most areas where palm trees are grown and is common in more than 60 countries. In Israel, the Agriculture Ministry warned against the dangers of the red palm weevil in 2013, and in 2016 it was found for the first time in the UK.

Because it is based on biological elements that specifically damage the red palm weevil insects, PlantArcBio says, its pesticide is environmentally friendly, degrades quickly after use, and leaves no traces in the fruit.

The dangerous red palm weevil beetle (photo credit: Shimon Biton/Courtesy)

“We have created a compound from the insect’s RNA that targets vital genes of the red palm weevil and blocks them, causing them to die,” Roy Livneh, the startup’s chief business officer, said by phone. “We have currently checked the efficacy of the molecules we have created directly on the weevil. In a second stage we will check its effect when it is applied to trees.”

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a polymeric molecule that plays an essential biological role in the coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes.

The way the compound will be applied to the palms still needs to be determined, Livneh said. It could be through a spraying system, by injection or via irrigation.

Existing pesticides for the beetle, he explained, are based on chemicals and thus toxic. They also don’t specifically target the weevil, but also other insects as a collateral side effect, he said. The chemicals also tend to remain in the trees; thus palms cannot be treated with the chemical just before their fruit  — dates or coconuts — are picked. The chemical treatment may harm the farmers as well as the treated trees. And it’s expensive.

A Palm tree near Mevoot Hayarkon in Israel, damaged by the deadly red palm weevil (PlantArcBio)

In some countries, the insect threatens the very existence of the palm industry as well as the supply of basic food in some North African and Middle Eastern countries, explained Livneh.

“For some, dates are a luxury, but for many it is an essential part of their diet,” he said.

Dror Shalitin, founder and CEO of PlantArcBio Ltd.

PlantArcBio was founded in 2014 by Shalitin, a scientist with decades of experience in plant research and development. The company’s first product was the discovery of genes, extracted from nature, that can make plants more resistant to drought. The startup said in July it signed an agreement with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under which genes that improve drought tolerance, developed by PlantArcBio, will be tested by the university’s scientists in soybean greenhouses and fields in the United States.

Shalitin, who for years worked at Evogene, an Israeli firm that uses computational tools to discover what genes make plants more resilient, has gone down a different path in his approach to improving plants traits. Instead of using these tools, he has set up the Direct in Plant method, where he collects millions of genes — such as plants, fungi, algae and many others that are found in different samples in nature, such as soil — and inserts these genes into model plants, to see what results, if any, these genes induce.

The firm has raised some $3 million to date from angel investors and also grants from the Israel Innovation Authority.

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