By John McDonald, GIA National Biosecurity Manager
The story behind the discovery and development of the bee-friendly bio-pesticide Sero-X is one of regional Australia’s greatest accounts of global triumph and innovation, born and bred in the bush. A natural extract from a widespread tropical legume used for cattle fodder to various folk medicines.
In February 2021 Greenlife Industry Australia, through funding from Hort Innovation and the Australian Government, secured a Minor Use Permit (PER87445) for Sero-X in; Nursery stock (non-food) – seedlings, tubes and plugs, potted colour, trees and shrubs, foliage plants, palms and grasses, and fruiting plants (non-bearing), Cut flowers and Ornamentals. The permit has been issued for the management of Heliothis moth (Helicoverpa spp.), Silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) and Green mirid (Creontiades dilutus).
“Never before has Australian agricultural research and development had a new active constituent pass the regulatory approval requirements and given Australian growers first access to such an exciting new product,” said Innovate Ag director Nick Watts.
Innovate Ag is the Australian company responsible for Sero-X with its headquarters in country NSW.
The world-first plant-based insecticide Sero-X was appropriately launched (2017) in the rich and diverse agricultural heartland of the Namoi Valley, at the Watts’ family property near Wee Waa, not far from where its natural pest control capabilities were first uncovered. Sero-X contains a revolutionary set of peptides (amino acids) as its primary active compounds known as cyclotides.
“The active constituent in Sero-X is an extract from the butterfly pea plant (Clitoria ternatea) that contains cyclotides,” explained Mr Watts.
"Cyclotides are peptides that are naturally found in plants and have a range of biological activities including insecticidal and antimicrobial.
“Some athletes have given peptides a bad name (performance enhancing) but when used properly, they can be great therapeutically.
“This plant has got the answer to pest control and for food security around the world.”
Butterfly pea is affectionately known as Sero-X’s ‘hero ingredient’ and it’s a remarkable plant that has evolved to protect itself against harmful pests.
“The unique nature of the compounds that our plant produces means that we can take them out of the plant and put them in a bottle, and they still perform the function that they did in the plant,” said Mr Watts.
Sero-X is already being used on cotton, some vegetable and foliage ornamental crops.
The natural pesticide is safe for humans working near crops and also non-target species, including bees that are threatened by toxic pesticides.
“We need pollinators, without bees there would be no flavour or colour on your dinner plate nor the diversity of greenlife across our urban and rural landscapes,” said Mr Watts.
“With our product, you don't have to be concerned about it doing anything other than having an impact on insects or arthropods that will eat your plant.”
Sero-X has been described as a ‘game-changer’ that’s set to transform pest control management, in the production of food, fibre and foliage as well as improve environmental sustainability by offering an extremely effective and organic alternative to traditional synthetic pesticides.
It’s the result of countless trials into the insecticidal properties of butterfly pea, which eventually led to the identification of cyclotides found in the plant.
It was a serendipitous moment more than 20 years ago that first sparked the idea butterfly pea had pest-control potential.
“Dr Robert Mensah is ‘the grandfather’ of Sero-X,” said Mr Watts.
“It started when he was doing refuge crop trials and he noticed that butterfly pea wasn’t being attacked by insects.”
Dr Mensah’s diligent observations started scientific trials, funded by the Cotton Catchment Communities Co-operative Research Centre, and he was able to prove that butterfly pea could naturally protect itself against threatening insects.
Mr Watts said Dr Mensah knew and respected his agri-businessman father Kerry Watts and approached him about the project because he didn’t want “to see it get shelved by a big multi-national”.
Another Wee Waa family business also backed the exciting innovation.
Years later, serendipity would strike Sero-X twice when a chance meeting led to the formation of a partnership between Innovate Ag and researchers from the University of Queensland, which is when the active compounds in the product, cyclotides, were finally singled out.
Since then, 79 different insecticide and antifungal properties have been characterised within the butterfly pea plant.
Professor David Craik from UQ named and discovered cyclotides in the 1990s and his contribution to science was recently recognised when he was elected as a Royal Society Fellow.
Professor Craik and his team at UQ are currently working with Innovate Ag to identify more bioactive molecules to protect crops from plant pests.
Sero-X has approval for registration from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and investment from Bi-Pa, a Belgium based company.
The incredible story behind Sero-X has taken the small town of Wee Waa to the world, as the product continues to gain global attention but Innovate Ag is a company with its roots firmly planted in regional Australia and the product will continue to be manufactured on home soil.
“I think it's good that there's been some recognition of the innovation that happens and can happen in our regions,” said Mr Watts.
“Every year farmers and country businesses have to be innovative to survive.
“We did something that none of the ‘big guys’ or bigger companies were able to achieve, and I think the reason why we could do it is because we’re from the bush.”