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New Plant Protection: Fresh-Squeezed Fly Larva Fat

Male scientist in lab holding petri dish
MIPT doctoral student Heakal Mohamed holding a Petri dish used in the experiment. Natalia Arefieva/MIPT Press Office

Just like humans, plants are subject to bacterial invasions. And just like the bacteria that infect humans, those that attack plants can also become resistant to antibiotics. But, according to researchers in Russia, fat squeezed out of maggots might be able to come to the rescue.

Magg-, Erm Larva!

Researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) decided to turn to the larva from black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) to search for compounds that could destroy pathogens that harm crops. The larva, also known as maggots (but we’ll keep calling them larva—you’re welcome), live in bacteria-rich, decomposing environments like manure. So to survive, they need a strong immune system.

Research from 2018 revealed over 50 genes in the larva that create antimicrobial compounds to help them survive in these germ-rich environments. And in 2019, researchers from France and Peru discovered that four of these compounds could destroy the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, causing ulcers, GI inflammation, and sometimes even cancer.

In the new researcher, which has been reported in the peer-reviewed journal Microorganisms, the scientists tested a new extract from the larval fat in Petri dishes growing five different pathogenic bacteria that infect plants. In all cases, the harmful bacteria was destroyed by the fly fat extract.

In addition to having success in killing the pathogens, the researchers also found a way to improve the process by which the antibacterial compounds are extracted. Using a mixture of water, methanol, and hydrochloric acid, they say they could increase the extraction of the fatty acids to 50 times current extraction methods.

“We found a way to mix the solvents in the right proportions for extracting the chemical compounds of interest,” said Elena Marusich, deputy head of the Laboratory of Innovative Drugs and Agricultural Biotechnology at MIPT. “The resulting extract—called AWME—has antimicrobial properties. We have shown it to be more effective than antibiotics, so it could virtually replace antibiotics in agriculture for fighting phytopathogenic bacteria.”

Soldier fly larvae are currently farmed and sold widely as animal feed, so should the process prove successful, scaling up production wouldn’t be a challenge. However, the researchers say that more follow-up is needed.

“A widespread use of our extract in agriculture will require additional experiments with other common plant pathogens, as well as research into the mechanisms underlying the extract’s antibacterial activity,” said Sergey Leonov, who heads the Laboratory for the Development of Innovative Drugs and Agricultural Biotechnology at MIPT.