Owners of a St. Louis biotechnology firm believe they are on the cusp of a major breakthrough in the way we fight mosquitos. And they say they’ve done it through completely natural means.
Inside the small Pluton Biosciences lab in St. Louis’ innovation district, you will find the raw materials dedicated to the work: an almost uncomfortable number of bugs. They are mosquito larvae. These are test subjects in an undertaking to find microbes in nature to kill them. They are not making chemicals here. In fact they would tell you they are hunting more than making.
“One of the things that we saw that was missing was somebody who just wants to look at what nature has already done,” Pluton CEO Charlie Walch said in an interview.
He says at Pluton Biosciences they consider themselves miners. They did through dirt, searching for microbes that will fulfill their task. In this case, that task is killing the larvae of mosquitos that carry infectious diseases.
“Microbes are bacteria, fungi, and viruses,” Walch explains, “and there are a lot of them living everywhere. About a trillion species estimated worldwide. We’ve found one in a million.”
How do they find the right microbes out of all those potential candidates? Director of Research Ann Guggisberg says it’s a combination of knowledge they already have and good, old fashioned research.
“We have to go to the literature and find previous work that has targeted mosquitos and the type of bacteria that might work there. And some of it is we just get lucky. We test. Some of it’s a brute force approach where we’re testing microbes we isolate and we don’t know they work until we see those results and that’s where we’re going to find truly novel, new modes of action to kill mosquitos.”
The microbes they have identified are a natural enemy to the mosquito. They are basically searching through nature in search of that specific enemy. There are no chemicals involved. The microbes simply do what comes natural to them.
“As the scientists like to tell me, the microbes have been doing this for about four -billion years, and us humans haven’t been around that long,” Walch says. “So anything we humans like to think up of a natural process, odds are the microbes have already done it.”
The business end of this project involves taking the microbes they discover, the “proper candidates” as they are called, then selling them to a distributor who will test them to make sure they work, then come up with a way to deploy them to attack the bugs. Pluton says it’s a natural methods, which is a long way from the trucks spraying chemicals every summer.
“We run from the mosquito trucks in the neighborhood that go around and fog everything,” Guggisberg says with a laugh, “so certainly I would like to have more sustainable, friendly, safe solutions. And I think there’s a huge demand for that.”
It is another potential feather in the cap for a growing biotechnology industry in the St. Louis area. Interestingly, according to Walch, much of the financing for these local businesses is coming from outside the market.
“We still need to get our investors off the sidelines, our local investors, to get more comfortable in investing in startup opportunities. We’ve got a lot of conservative money here in St. Louis.”
For the scientists, the next project will be aimed at agribulture, with the hope of having a few more of the “Eureka!” moments of discovery like they’ve encountered in their mosquito research.
“It’s awesome,” Guggisberg says. “It’s why you’re a scientist. Because there’s a lot of failure, a lot of changing direction, grueling work, banging your head against the wall. But uncovering something new that nobody else in the world knew about…there’s that moment. That’s why you do it.”