GreenLight Biosciences is developing a sustainable alternative to traditional pesticides—an RNA-based product that targets harmful pests while protecting beneficial insects and preserving the environment. It works by modifying a pest’s gene expression and weakening it through a natural process.
CEO Andrey Zarur co-founded the Medford-based startup in 2009 with the goal of developing a cell-free bioprocessing method that would enable high quality and cost-efficient RNA production.
“The biological segment of this industry is growing at about 17 percent per year,” said Mick Messman, GreenLight’s chief commercial officer. “This general type of product is in high demand, and when we get our product launched, it will be the first topically applied RNA-based product in agriculture.”
GreenLight’s proprietary product, GreenWorx, is a platform that facilitates the creation of RNA-based products for plant and life sciences. Focusing on the agriculture industry, the company tested its platform through a series of field trials over 25 locations across the United States, specifically targeting the Colorado potato beetle, Messman said.
Russell Groves, professor of entomology and vegetable extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collaborated with GreenLight for a field trial. He said the results revealed a promising alternative to antiquated and often dangerous insecticides.
“Some of the old insecticides were developed out of World War II to be used for chemical warfare, and out sprang the insecticide industry,” Groves said. “Make no mistake—they have enabled agriculturalists to manage thousands and thousands of acres relatively pest-free—but you have to ask yourself, at what cost?”
GreenLight’s product is unique in that it targets the problem pest and nothing else, leaving the surrounding ecosystem undisturbed. The Colorado potato beetle has developed a resistance to many insecticides currently on the market, Groves said. But with an RNA-based product, scientists can weaken the insect naturally.
It could not have come at a better time. A 2019 United Nations report found that while species extinction rates are climbing, the world population is expected to increase significantly in the next few decades. This necessitates faster and safer agricultural practices, which leaves little room for toxic pesticides that kill everything in their wake.
Through the field trials, GreenLight gathered valuable insights that it plans to research further in the coming years. In 2020, the team plans to investigate the overall impact of beneficial insects like bees and ladybugs remaining in the field, Messman said.
Of course, all this progress does not come without challenges. Although the RNA-based concoction worked against the Colorado potato beetle, the targeted nature of the product means that each pest will require a slightly different treatment in order to be effective. Nonetheless, Groves remains hopeful.
“The hurdles are being overcome every day. It’s not ‘sky’s the limit,’ but smart people can certainly surpass those technical hurdles,” Groves said.
Messman cites regulatory requirements as one of the biggest hurdles in the process of getting GreenLight’s product on the market, especially because the company is developing first-of-its-kind technology.
“Then, from a grower adoption standpoint, it’s a matter of education and helping growers understand the targeted nature of the technology, Messman said. “There will not be any limitations compared to some of the standard products in the marketplace that would require any special handling to work. We’re developing it in a way where it will be user-friendly.”
Messman anticipates that GreenLight will file paperwork with the Environmental Protection Agency later this year, which would enable a commercial launch in 2022. GreenLight also plans to expand further into life sciences, another area in which RNA-based products could have a multitude of applications, including potential applications in vaccine production.
While the GreenLight team is looking forward to their first product launch, Messman says that they are “even more excited about a pipeline of continual innovation and new products coming down the road.”
“Our consumers, our buyers, the public, the world, is asking for solutions, and there are lots of new and interesting biological insecticides being developed,” Groves said. “I don’t want to say it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it has tremendous potential.”
By Jill McKeon