Story of Success – SemioPlant AB

The Story of Success highlights innovative regional companies in Plant and Food science, which are bridging the gap between research and industry. In this interview, Christer Löfstedt and Per Hofvander introduce a unique collaboration between the Pheromone group at Lund University and the lipid biochemistry and plant biotechnology group at SLU, Alnarp. This initiative resulted in the founding of SemioPlant AB company, which was also supported by PlantLink seed money. SemioPlant AB coordinates the development and production of insect pheromones in plant factories for the control of major insect pests in agriculture. What makes semiochemicals ideal eco-friendly alternatives to conventional insecticides? Read the interview below!

Please, briefly introduce your company.

SemioPlant AB is a small R&D company started in 2019 to bring plant factory-produced semiochemicals for the control of pest insects to the market. Semiochemicals are behaviour-modifying compounds, including pheromones, particularly the sex attractants of female moths, that have become one of the foremost eco-friendly alternatives to conventional insecticides. Most current pheromone-based pest control products target lepidopteran pests attacking high-value crops, as today´s synthetic manufacturing process cannot produce pheromones at low enough costs to enable their use for lower-value crops, especially commodity crops. SemioPlant coordinates the development of cheap and efficient production of insect pheromones in plant factories for control of major insect pests in agriculture, forestry and stored products.

What was your motivation to start the company?

SemioPlant AB emerged from a collaboration between the Pheromone group at Lund University and the lipid biochemistry and plant biotechnology group at SLU, Alnarp, initially supported by seed money from PlantLink. The Lund group had 30 years of experience in insect pheromone biosynthesis and the group at SLU, headed by professor Sten Stymne at the time the collaboration started some ten years ago,  added expertise in plant lipid biochemistry and plant biotechnology. 

The collaboration, also involving professor Ed Cahoon at the University of Nebraska, continued as part of “Oil Crops for the Future”, a project funded by Stiftelsen för strategisk forskning, where utilisation beyond project finalisation was an essential part. SemioPlant AB was started (by Christer Löfstedt and Per Hofvander) to curate IP on plants as factories for insect pheromone production, to bridge the valley of death and make sure that our inventions will actually reach the market to the benefit of the environment and the researchers involved in the underlying inventions.

Can you tell us more about the technologies SemioPlant AB uses?

The research is carried out by academic partners – i.e. the founders and their research groups – at SLU and LU. The company is focused on securing IP and, by partnering with other companies, bringing pheromone-producing plants to the market.

Most moth pheromones are medium- and long-chain fatty acid derivatives. We modify plant lipid biosynthesis genetically by the introduction of genes that code for the critical biosynthetic steps in insect pheromone biosynthesis. Gene candidates are found by labelling experiments elucidating pheromone production pathways in insects, mining of transcriptomes and genomes for the genes involved, and functional assays of the gene candidates in heterologous platforms, including yeast, plants and insect cell lines. In the most advanced development Camelina, an oil crop, is transformed using genes that enable the production 14- and 16-carbon fatty acids with a Z double bond in 9 or 11 positions targeted for incorporation into seed oil. The most promising candidates are selected and multiplied in the greenhouse and in the field. This process may take several years. Pheromones or pheromone precursors are extracted from seeds or foliage, purified and eventually converted chemically to the active volatile pheromone components.

Pheromone-based solutions for pest control already exist; thus, we provide plant-derived active ingredients and just “plug into” existing technologies for trapping and mating disruption.

Transgenic production of moth sex pheromones in Camelina sativa. (Illustration by Honglei Wang)

What makes you different from other companies in your sector? What novelty do you bring?

The Lund group collaborated with researchers at DTU on microbial cell factories for pheromone production, which in 2018 resulted in BioPhero, a Danish biotech company specialized in yeast fermentation for the production of insect pheromones and other biomolecules. Yeast and plants, however, have different advantages and shortcomings when it comes to the industrial production of insect pheromones. To our knowledge, we are unique in focusing on plants as a production platform, but this is an area that develops fast. The complementary competencies of the research groups and our international network puts us in a pole position, but we have inspired similar initiatives internationally. We believe that oil crops are an ideal platform for the production of moth pheromones. Our patent applications for the production of insect pheromone precursors and pheromones in plants have been granted in USA and Europe. Several additional applications for new specific pheromone compounds are in the pipeline.

What type of market are you targeting?

Together with partners, we are targeting the global market for insect pheromones. The market for pheromones, in agriculture only, is projected to reach US$5.7 billion by 2025 and increase further. Because of the relatively high cost of conventional synthetic production of pheromones, pheromone-based insect population control has been limited to high-value crops. Cheaper biotechnological pheromone production will make it possible to control also pests in row crops of crucial importance for human provision. Our most advanced Camelina lines produce the precursors of major global pests like the cotton bollworm, the diamondback moth, and the fall armyworm.

Where are you now and where will your company be in 5 and 15 years?

The company is, for now, run by the CEO and the chairman of the board. Our focus is on moth pheromones because that is where we have the biosynthetic experience, and many of the most important global pests are moths. In due time we may address other targets.

We have signed a license and supply agreement with the Californian green agritech company ISCA Technologies, and upscaling and development of downstream processing are carried out in collaboration with this partner. Plant events for first products are in multiplication in America, and over the next years, additional important pheromone precursors are expected to enter the same development scheme.

Researchers behind SemioPlant AB have been approached by a Chinese institute about collaboration in the area of biotechnological insect pheromone production. The Chinese agricultural sector is huge and has recognised the need for more environmentally benign systems, regarding the production of inputs as well as what type of inputs are used in agriculture for plant protection. For now, the prospects of production in the EU are low due to no new market approvals in effect for GMO cultivation since the late 1990s. However, hopefully, the EU will benefit from these developments in the use of products in agriculture for more sustainable pest control.

Thank you for a very interesting interview, Christer and Per! We wish you the best of luck and success in your future paths!

(Photo: Jan Nordén)