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A natural, sustainable alternative to pesticides

Could nature hold the answer to developing a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to some of the problematic chemicals used by the agriculture sector? According to the EU-funded ZABIO project, the answer is ‘yes’.

Climate Change and Environment icon Climate Change and Environment

Eel grass, that omnipresent seaweed found along North Sea shores, has a secret power – one that could be the key to developing sustainable alternatives to today’s pesticides. That power is zosteric acid (ZA), a naturally occurring compound that eel grass produces to protect it from bacteria, fungus and other harmful pests. “In theory, we should be able to use ZA as a natural fungicide in agriculture,” explains Cysbio CEO Henrik Meyer. “Unfortunately, it has thus far been impossible to produce ZA or extract it from plants at scale and in a sustainable manner.” But Cysbio aims to make the impossible possible. With the support of the EU-funded ZABIO project, the company has developed an innovative way to genetically modify microorganisms so they can turn renewable carbon sources such as glucose into big amounts of ZA. “By offering a safe, effective and sustainable alternative to fungicides, our work will play an important role in Europe’s green transition,” adds Meyer.

New types of bacterial strains

The ZABIO project aimed to accomplish four main objectives. First and foremost, the project created bacterial strains capable of producing a large amount of ZA per litre of fermentation broth – a feat that is all the more impressive considering that this process isn’t one such bacteria typically perform. “The ZA produced by our strains is non-toxic,” says Meyer. “When applied, it has a repelling effect, making a surface unattractive to pests.” The Cysbio strains have since been patented.

Time to scale up

Next, researchers looked at ways to scale up this process to an economically viable level. “We needed to not only produce enough ZA in fermentation tanks, but also establish an effective downstream production process for extracting this ZA and purifying it into a simple crystal,” adds Meyer. Together with project partner Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, Cysbio was able to scale up production to 15 000 litres of fermentation.

Showing that it actually works

Of course, it wasn’t enough to just produce the product at scale, the project also had to show that the product actually worked. “A key component of this project was to demonstrate ZA’s potential as an effective antifouling agent and thus pesticide replacement,” remarks Meyer. Here, Cysbio teamed up with Henkel, amongst others, to investigate such things as dose requirements and possible uses across a variety of sectors, including agriculture. “These demos proved that renewably produced ZA is a safe, natural and highly effective alternative to pesticides,” notes Meyer. The data gathered during the demonstrations was also used to support the product’s application for a REACH Certificate of Compliance.

From idea to commercial product

The ZABIO project succeeded at establishing an effective production method for an attractive, naturally occurring biochemical and creating a commercially viable product – one that could help reduce the world’s dependence on harmful chemicals. “We are very proud of our biotechnology and what it means for sustainable agriculture,” concludes Meyer. Cysbio is now putting the final touches on its plans and looking to partner with relevant industrial players to begin full production and commercialisation.


ZABIO, pesticides, chemicals, agriculture, eel grass, zosteric acid, fungicide, green transition, antifouling agent, REACH, biochemical, biotechnology, sustainable agriculture

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