Component From Artificial Sweetener Truvia Could Be Used As An Insecticide
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A study in the journal PLOS ONE that began as a sixth-grade science fair project could lead to the development of a powerful, yet safe, insecticide – erythritol, the main component of the sweetener Truvia®.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, which attracts flies even when other foods are available. The substance would make for a particularly useful insecticide because it is safe for human consumption.
Ninth grade student Simon D. Kaschock-Marenda said he was motivated to study sugar substitutes in order to understand why his parents stopped eating white sugar when trying to eat healthier.
“He asked if he could test the effects of different sugars and sugar substitutes on fly health and longevity for his science fair, and I said, ‘Sure!” said Simon’s co-author and father Daniel Marenda, an assistant professor of biology in Drexel University, in a recent statement.
Using “baby” flies and growth medium from Marenda’s lab, Simon raised flies in several different types of sweeteners at home.
“After six days of testing these flies in our house, he came back to me and said, ‘Dad, all the flies in the Truvia® vials are dead…’” Marenda said. “To which I responded, ‘OK…we must have screwed up somehow. Let’s repeat the experiment!’”
Working in his own lab, Marenda found flies raised on food with erythritol survived for an average of 5.8 days, as opposed to 38.6 to 50.6 days for flies raised on foods without erythritol. Flies fed erythritol also exhibited noticeable motor impairments ahead of their deaths.
“Indeed what we found is that the main component of Truvia, the sugar erythritol, appears to have pretty potent insecticidal activity in our flies,” Marenda said.
“I feel like this is the simplest, most straightforward work I’ve ever done, but it’s potentially the most important thing I’ve ever worked on,” added Sean O’Donnell, a professor of biology and biodiversity, earth and environmental science at Drexel.
The team discovered that the toxic impact did not originate from the stevia plant extract, which happens to be present in equally Truvia® as well as the sweeteners PureVia®, which was a part of the tests and had no toxic effect on the flies.
“We are not going to see the planet sprayed with erythritol and the chances for widespread crop application are slim,” O’Donnell said. “But on a small scale, in places where insects will come to a bait, consume it and die, this could be huge.”
The team noted that they can’t confirm which insects erythritol might kill besides fruit flies, or how its toxic effects work. Erythritol is made by natural means in some insects, which use it as anti-freeze to guard their bodies against the cold. However, that may be insignificant as the study showed that certain doses can be poisonous.
The scientists plan on conducting additional trials with other insects such as termites, cockroaches, bed bugs and ants. They will also test erythritol’s toxicity as it moves up the food chain by experimenting on praying mantids and other organism that eat fruit flies.