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Murray Isman has helped develop a natural pesticide effective both in homes and in the field - photo by Martin Dee
Murray Isman has helped develop a natural pesticide effective both in homes and in the field - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 3 | Mar. 1, 2007

Bugging Bugs the Natural Way

By Brian Lin, with files from Jennifer Honeybourn

UBC Entomology and Toxicology Prof. Murray Isman has helped develop a new line of organic pesticides set to hit the shelves at Wal-Mart across the U.S. this spring.

Marketed under the brand EcoSMART® by a Nashville, Tennessee-based botanicals company of the same name, the line of consumer home and garden products features a specific blend of plant oils that bugs pests but are harmless to humans.

“EcoSMART had come up with a product that killed insects but they didn’t understand how or why it was working,” says Isman, who was approached by the company to assist with its basic research and product development.

Isman, who is also Dean of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, found that the patented concoction of common essential oils such as rosemary, clove, thyme and peppermint targets a key receptor for a neurotransmitter called octopamine, which is found in all invertebrates, including insects, but not in mammals.

Octopamine regulates an insect’s heart rate, movement and metabolism and interrupting its function can produce a total breakdown of the insect’s nervous system. “Basically it has a calming effect on the insect, like its own supply of Valium.  Blocking octopamine causes hyperactivity and quickly leads to death of the insect,” says Isman.

The product effectively kills ants, cockroaches, dust mites, flies, wasps, hornets and other common pests including pets fleas.  Isman’s lab has also found it effective against a wide range of agricultural pests.

Natural pesticides are gaining popularity in the marketplace with the increase of awareness surrounding toxic chemicals in consumer products. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, recently announced that it’s phasing out products containing any of 20 toxic chemicals over the next two years.

“For consumers, these natural ingredients have a long history of safety based on their use as flavourings in foods and beverages and as fragrances in cosmetics,” says Isman. “We also suggested the company market the product for agricultural purposes since they’re non-toxic to fish -- they breakdown naturally within 24 hours in water -- and therefore can be used around waterways.”

In the U.S., certain natural pesticides can bypass costly and lengthy Environmental Protection Agency registration and approval procedures because the ingredients are exempt. In Canada, all pest-control products, including those made of natural ingredients, must be approved by Health Canada. Isman is conducting further tests, which he hopes will support the product’s registration in Canada to be used on greenhouse vegetables.

EcoSMART has also been licensed to Sergeant’s, a leading pet care company based in Omaha, Nebraska.

“It’s rewarding to see my research produce something people can and actually want to use,” says Isman.

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Last reviewed 27-Feb-2007

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