A federal agency is providing a quarter of a million dollars in funding to a biotech startup that’s developing technology to remove dangerous pesticides from a variety of crops, including marijuana.
The National Science Foundation announced the $250,000 two-year grant to Brooklyn Bioscience last month. The money will go toward research into the company’s efforts to engineer an enzyme that’s able to break down organophosphates (OPs), which are pesticides that are particularly hazardous to people and the environment.
“The product is of particular interest to cannabis farmers, because OPs, when vaporized and inhaled, are exponentially more toxic than when ingested by mouth,” according a a press release from New York University, where one of Brooklyn Bioscience’s principals is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “[I]n states such as California and Colorado, which are introducing strict regulations governing the cultivation of cannabis, a much lower level of OPs is allowed than that considered acceptable in fruits and vegetables.”
While OPs are effective at increasing crop yields, they’re hydrophobic, or resistant to water, making it difficult to be washed away.
The company said that it’s able to mitigate the risks associated with OPs with an engineered enzyme called phosphotriesterase. According to the press release, the enzyme “provides a low-cost, efficient, and environmentally friendly solution for breaking down dangerous OPs into relatively benign products that can be more easily removed with water.”
“Agricultural analysts have calculated that the pesticide segment of the market represents $17 billion, with more than a tenth of that corresponding directly to the sales of OPs,” Jin Kim Montclare of Brooklyn Bioscience said. “Given the importance of sustainability and environmental health, it’s more vital than ever to develop biologically-based solutions for crop protection, and with the support available at NYU Tandon, Brooklyn Bioscience is making great strides.”
While the product could eventually be used on a variety of plants, the NYU press releases touts the marijuana connection in its headline by proclaiming that Brooklyn Bioscience is “pav[ing] the way for pesticide-free cannabis, wine grapes, and other high-value crops.”
Having a tool to reduce the presence of OPs in marijuana is especially important given that there are no standardized federal guidelines for pesticides that can be used for the crop.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced last month that it is reviewing pesticide applications for hemp since the non-intoxicating cannabis crop was federally legalized, but it will not do the same for marijuana so long as it remains a controlled substance.
Last month, a federally funded scientific journal published an article highlighting how ongoing prohibition puts cannabis consumers at risk due to the resulting lack of guidance on safety standards from regulators.
“At the federal level in the United States, cannabis is still considered an illegal drug,” the piece noted. “As a result, neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided any guidance on how to regulate contaminants or on which cannabis-related exposures can be considered safe.”
“States have had to determine on their own how to protect millions of cannabis users, and they have come up with widely varying responses,” the report states. “The result is an uncertain and occasionally incoherent regulatory landscape.”
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.