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Could spider venom hold the holy grail of natural pesticides?

The black widow is one of two venomous species of spiders in Michigan
flickr user matt maves

The Next Idea

Pesticides are a critical part of a business that is very important to Michigan: agriculture.

You need to control the insects that are threatening your crop, but you don’t want to kill off the “good” bugs along with the “bad.” Nor do you want to pose a threat to people, pets, water sources or livestock.

A new Michigan-made insecticide could be the answer to this problem, and it all starts with spider venom.

Josh Sorenson is the director and CEO of Vestaron, a spinoff from the University of Connecticut that was recruited to Kalamazoo nine years ago.

Sorenson tells us the discovery came out of a very broad program that was looking at spider venom for a variety of applications including inoculation and anti-venom.

“The idea came up one day that these things might have good insecticidal activity,” he says. “After all, spiders through the millennia have become pretty good at killing insects.”

"Spiders through the millennia have become pretty good at killing insects."

And so they set out to discover whether components of spider venom, sans toxic effects on humans, could prove useful as insecticides.

Biological insecticides have been shown to be much safer than their synthetic counterparts, but have also failed to perform as effectively. Sorenson tells us the synthetic stuff is nearly 100% effective, while biological insecticides tend to fall more in the range of 80%.

“That difference in the effectiveness is just more than good commercial growers can tolerate and still make a profit,” he says.

So how effective is SPEAR (Species at Risk), the pesticide Vestaron developed based on spider venom?

“It’s exactly the same as the nasty old organic chemicals that have been used for years: 95-100% control,” Sorenson says.

Sorenson tells us that spider venom is “a complex cocktail of about a thousand different peptides or so.” Some of those have effects on mammals, he says, but many don’t.

"[SPEAR is] exactly the same as the nasty old organic chemicals that have been used for years: 95-100% control"

“We selected those that don’t have any mammalian effects, and we isolated those components, synthesized the genes for them, put them into yeast, and by fermentation, that produces our product for us. So it’s a slick way to have to get around having to milk spiders,” Sorenson says.

It took a little over two years to get approval for the new pesticide from the EPA, and Sorenson says the final product will be available for both commercial farmers and backyard gardeners next year.

Sorenson believes that venom-based pesticides could radically change the larger landscape of agricultural pest control across the country and around the world.

“We have a platform for developing these things from spider venoms, from other venoms – scorpions, sea anemones and all kinds of things – which should … revitalize, really, the process of discovering new insecticides. So we’re really excited about that, too. It’s not just one product, it’s a pathway to find multiple products,” Sorenson says.

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