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UNR research on bark beetles leads to creation of company

Rob Sabo

Research into the way bark beetles create pheromones and their ability to resist poisonous turpentine in pine trees led a team of researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, to create a chemical production company.

EscaZyme Biochemicals will target companies that produce traps and lures for bark beetles as well as the U.S. Forest Service for sales of biochemically created pheromones. EscaZyme is the culmination of years of work by UNR’s Claus Tittiger, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Rubi Figueroa-Teran, a post-doctoral researcher.

“We were trying to find unique aspects of bark beetles, trying to find their Achilles tendon,” Tittiger says. “We were learning how they make pheromones and deal biochemically with the turpentine. If we understood this we could maybe shut down their pheromone production or their ability to cope with turpentine.”

Through their research the team found a way to create pheromones that could be used as bait to lure bark beetles into traps and help eradicate the devastating insects from forests.

“Beetles use enzymes to make the pheromones, and now we have the biochemical capacity to make those pheromones in a test tube instead of having to go to the beetle,” Tittiger says.

Jennifer Ott, a UNR student who is completing her master’s degree in business administration at the university, will head EscaZyme. Figueroa-Teran is the firm’s chief science officer, and Tittiger serves as science adviser.

Ott sees a varied market for EscaZyme. The chemically created pheromone, which eventually could be used in perfumes, flavorings, cleaning products and drugs used in chemotherapy or to fight bacterial infection, initially will be marketed as a pesticide.

“Our customers are governments, ranchers, timber companies, ski resorts anyone who is interested in forest management,” Ott says.

Dan Langford, UNR’s manager of industry partnerships who works with the university’s Technology Transfer Program, helped usher EscaZyme through the National Science Foundation’s business-validation program. EscaZyme received a $50,000 grant from the NSF.

Figueroa-Teran says the UNR Technology Transfer Program helped the research team understand the nuances of bringing their work into commercialization.

“We learned a lot,” she says. “Things like putting the numbers together, the cost of producing compounds and realizing what was really important if you were thinking about commercializing a product.”

Tittiger, who doesn’t plan to leave his role as an academic researcher, says the company’s principals plan to reinvest future revenue back into EscaZyme to fund its growth through the startup stages to a stand-alone company.


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