MERRITT ISLAND, FL, UNITED STATES, Pheronym, a bio-ag-tech pest control company, sent a New Year’s gift to three Americans, two Russians and one Italian stranded at the International Space Station (ISS): a cargo load of tiny worms.
These roundworms, formally called nematodes, have naturally occurring bacteria in their gut that kill crop-harming insects but are safe for beneficial insects like honeybees. Pheronym developed a pheromone extract (called Nemastim™) that propels the nematodes to disperse more frequently to find insects to infect. Nematodes treated with Pheronym’s patent have been found to be three times more effective in attacking agricultural pests than untreated worms.
“These pheromones are how the nematodes talk to each other – telling them that it’s time to move, find an insect, and infect it,” explained Dr. David Shapiro-Ilan, co-project director and research entomologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory.
Without pest control, farmers can lose 30–70% of their crop.
Why send nematodes into space?
The project, sponsored to the tune of $100,000 by the ISS National Lab that partners with NASA wants to see how the worms will navigate in microgravity – if they’ll be able to latch onto their prey, enter an opening, find the insect’s bloodstream, and release bacteria.
The researchers also want to see if nematodes can move through the soil without gravity. Such findings could help them enhance the worm’s ability to dig deeper into the soil back on Earth.
As one of its long-term goals, NASA plans to go to – and possibly colonize – Mars and the moon. Cultivating nematodes in low gravity may help astronauts grow their own food in a sustainable way.
Once aboard the space station, those worms will be transferred to special NanoLab boxes equipped with cameras and sensors built especially for space.
As the SpaceX Dragon capsule, with its box of 120,000 nematodes, took off Sunday at 5:05 AM Eastern Time from the Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Fatma Kaplan, Project Director and CEO of Pheronym, tweeted her delight.
“When I was a kid,” she had once written, “conventional pesticides were popular, but when I graduated from graduate school, farmers were interested in organic, eco-friendly sustainable solutions for pest control. Nematode pheromones address to farmers’ needs.”
In Pheronym’s press release, she said:
“It’s a scientist’s dream come true… We thank the USDA, NASA and the ISS for the privilege and opportunity to move our science forward for the benefit of agriculture on our planet and beyond.”