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New Startup Proves You Can Catch Flies with Sugar

By Kylie Gray

cup with teaspoon of sugar by Photosiber/Thinkstock Images

January 17, 2018

A sixth-grade science fair project in 2014 led to the discovery that erythritol, the main component of Truvia, is a natural insecticide. Today, that discovery is the basis of a new Drexel-backed startup, BioLogic Insecticide.

Simon D. Kaschock-Marenda, now a freshman at Drexel in the College of Engineering, was 11 when he noticed that Drosophila melanogaster, commonly known as fruit flies, died much quicker when they fed on Truvia than on other sweeteners. His father, Daniel Marenda, PhD, professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, was unconvinced at first.

“As scientists, we are trained to be skeptical. So, we did what scientists do, which is to repeat the experiment,” Marenda says.

Marenda enlisted the help of Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor of biology and environmental science at Drexel and an expert on insect biology. While the first iteration of the experiment took place in Marenda’s closet, controlled settings in the lab confirmed that Truvia drastically decreased the longevity of the flies compared to other non-nutritive sweeteners. Follow-up chemical analyses showed erythritol was the active component in reducing fly longevity. The discovery is exciting because, unlike most pesticides, erythritol is nontoxic to mammals and safe for human consumption.

Since being published in PLOS ONE in June of 2014, the discovery has led to a flurry of research citing the original study and an untold amount of “gray literature” —pamphlets and documents that are not peer-reviewed, but are used by government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Marenda and O’Donnell have since worked with the University to patent the use of erythritol as an insecticide through BioLogic Insecticide. The startup is currently in stage two of three of the patent process, with help from Academic Technology Ventures, a firm that specializes in commercializing new cutting-edge technologies.

This year, the experiments moved beyond the lab to the field, with erythritol tests on raspberries in Texas and blueberries in Wisconsin. The results have been promising: Erythritol outperformed the current leading insecticide in at least one case.

Meanwhile, O’Donnell and Marenda have continued their efforts in the lab to provide proof of concept. One recent study showed that erythritol not only shortens the lifespan of fruit flies to a few days, but also renders them largely sterile during that time.

“What most people don’t realize is that pest insect population growth is driven mainly by rapid reproduction, so this is a really exciting development,” O’Donnell says.

Marenda and O’Donnell have also started targeting other insect species, including ants, the crop-ravaging spotted wing drosophila, and mosquitos that carry the West Nile and Zika viruses. Next up for testing are pests like termites, roaches and beetles that consume grain in silos.

Over the next few years, Marenda and O’Donnell hope to get the product to market for use with select insects.

Beyond commerce, the discovery has the potential to impact human health. A 2017 United Nations report estimated that pesticides, which form a $10 billion industry, kill 200,000 people globally each year. Despite its effects on insects, erythritol is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is harmless to humans. It is widely used in reduced-calorie foods like diet sodas and can be found naturally in fruits like pears and grapes.

For Marenda and O’Donnell, the accessibility of their findings has been especially gratifying.

“When we tell friends and family about it, they get it instantly,” Marenda says. “Science can be incredibly nuanced, but not this study. The data and the importance are crystal clear.”