Genetically Modified Plants Lure Insects With Sex

By Yashika Sharma

April 11, 2023
green tobacco plant of Nicotiana benthamiana with a white flower
Flower of Nicotiana benthamiana

Researchers used CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify the tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, to produce moth sex hormones.

The sex pheromones produced by the plant also help reduce the usage of pesticides [1].

They’ve also demonstrated how the production of these chemicals may be efficiently managed so that normal plant growth is not hampered.

Pheromones are typically hung on pheromone dispensers among their crop to simulate the scent of female insects, so trapping and distracting males from seeking a potential mating.

Certain pheromones can be produced chemically, however, the chemical synthesis of these substances is often expensive and has harmful consequences and even toxic byproducts.

What are Pheromones?

A pheromone is a chemical component that is released or expelled that causes a social reaction in members of the same species.

Pheromones are substances that can operate like hormones outside the body of the person who secretes them, influencing the behavior of others who receive them.

The group from Earlham Institute in Norwich used synthetic biology techniques, to produce genetic modules with instructions to produce new molecules.


The group built new sequences of the DNA in the lab to imitate moth genes and induce a few molecular switches to accurately regulate their expression.

The scientists began testing and refining the regulation of genes responsible for manufacturing a mixture of particular chemicals that mimic the sex pheromones of moth species such as navel orangeworm and cotton bollworm moths in the lab.

They demonstrated that copper sulfate could be used to fine-tune gene activity, allowing scientists to manipulate both the timing and the level of gene expression. This is especially significant because copper sulfate is a cheap and widely available chemical that is already licensed for use in agriculture.

Scientists were also able to precisely control the production of various pheromone components, allowing them to tailor the cocktail to certain moth species.

The research project was led by Dr.Nicola Patron and she explains that getting the composition just right is especially critical for moth pheromones, which are frequently a combination of two or three molecules in certain ratios. 

Their Spanish collaborators are currently collecting plant-derived pheromones and putting them in dispensers to evaluate how well they compare to female moths.

Researchers hope that their study will pave the road for plants to be routinely used to manufacture a wide range of important natural compounds.

Plants already create a variety of useful chemicals, so we may apply cutting-edge approaches to adapt and refine the current machinery, they say.


  1. Nicola J. Parton et al., ‘Tunable control of insect pheromone biosynthesis in Nicotiana benthamiana’, BioRxiv, 10 April 2023,[]