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New Start-Up is Reducing the Toxic Threat of Pesticides

Friday, November 4, 2016  
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Agrospheres a new undergraduate-led company at the University of Virginia is a bioengineering start-up that has created a solution that can be sprayed on pesticide-treated plants to safely and rapidly remove potentially harmful pesticide residue.

The spray is created from “mini cells,” microscopic biologic platforms that deliver pesticide-degrading enzymes. It makes plants safer for workers to handle and allows farmers more control over their harvest time.

“What we mean by a ‘platform’ is that the technology we’re using is a spherical bio-particle we’re attaching enzymes to. Essentially it’s just a carrier that can be modified to work with different enzymes for different purposes, from degrading pesticides to breaking down other substances,” fourth-year biomedical engineering major Ameer Shakeel said.

Shakeel helped co-found Agrospheres with 2016 graduate Payam Pourtaheri while they were both still students in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. They began working with UVA pharmacology professor Mark Kester as their adviser and eventual co-founder as they considered applications for the mini cell platform. Though this is his first foray into the agriculture industry, Kester, who is director of UVA’s NanoSTAR institute, has experience using similar cell platforms as drug delivery systems.

“To create the Agrospheres platform, we get a microorganism to divide, but we’ve manipulated that organism so that when it divides, it’s going to do it asymmetrically,” Kester said. “The majority of that organism is going to divide into one identical organism and a tiny remaining percentage of the organism is going to divide into what we call the mini cell. The mini cell that we get is just a sack without the genetic material of the original organism. It’s like a package, but in that package we’ve got the one enzyme we want expressed.”

These tiny packages and the pesticide-destroying enzymes they contain are then separated and used to create a spray. After testing this process in the lab for over a year, the Agrospheres team has just begun their first field tests for their spray. The team is collaborating with local partners Early Mountain Vineyards and Veritas Vineyards to test their spray on small sections of their grape crops.

“Based on our tests so far, it’s brought the pesticide residue down to an almost non-existent amount in a matter of hours,” Pourtaheri said. “We’re also very interested in how our spray impacts pesticides that make it into runoff water. Some pesticides have a half-life of up to 21 weeks in water, so once they get into the water supply they can stay there for months. Our early results indicate that if we could spray our spray in the affected water it would degrade pesticide residue in as little as 15 minutes and would be totally safe. After a few days, our spray just degrades into harmless sugars and proteins.”

As evidence of the spray’s potential impact mounts, Agrospheres is earning more and more investments and entrepreneurial accolades for their work. Already this year they’ve won first prize and $22,500 in the University-wide Entrepreneurship Cup and $25,000 in equity-free grant funding during the Virginia Velocity Tour’s public pitch competition and earned first place and a $10,000 prize in the undergraduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition.

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