FLiPPER®, a novel bioinsecticide developed by AlphaBio Control (recently recognised with a Queen’s Award for Enterprise) is based on extracts from olive oil. It has multiple modes of action including, for instance, immediate paralysis or knock-down, doubtless as a result of interactions with the insects’ nervous system. An intriguing attribute is its specificity in conferring high mortality to pest insects such as aphids whilst being relatively benign to beneficial insects and pollinators. Given the importance of ensuring that any insecticide has a very low impact on bees and other beneficial insects, it is important to understand how this is possible.

The Evolutionary “Arms Race”

There is a co-evolutionary ‘arms race’ between insects and the plants they feed on. Plants produce specific chemicals through secondary metabolism, that is metabolism products not created via normal growth or development, but created for a specific purpose, in this case defence from insects. Examples of these defence chemicals include terpenes, alkaloids and phenolic compounds members of which would be menthol, nicotine and quercetin respectively. Some of these natural defence chemicals were developed for commercial use as insecticides such as the pyrethrins (terpenoids) and nicotine (alkaloid).

As with all arms races, the enemy is also developing ways of circumventing the defences of the opposition. For their part, insects have continued to evolve in response, and have created their own arsenal in an attempt to counter these xenobiotics. They have an array of enzymes that can metabolise or move plant toxins to nullify their effects until excreted and protein pumps that remove toxic compounds from cells. Foremost of the defence enzymes are the cytochrome P450s (CYPs), a large group of enzymes with varying substrate specificities and the non-specific esterases that can sequester diverse classes of chemistry.

Selectivity between phytophagous and beneficial insects

FLiPPER® inhibits both cytochrome P450s and esterases and also modulates the action of the protein pumps. This leaves insects that would otherwise feed off plants open to the effects of natural plant toxins, tipping the arms race decidedly in the plants’ favour. The defence enzymes of beneficial insects and pollinator species are presumably also affected by FLiPPER®, but since they are not subsequently exposed to the same high levels of plant toxins through ingestion they remain relatively unscathed.

If this is the major mode of action of FLiPPER®, it seems that helping plants to fend off the advances of pests and the diseases they spread by interfering with this “arms race” results in products with very low environmental impact, something we at AlphaBio feel very strongly about.