Researchers at North Carolina State University have recently discovered a novel use for a lipid molecule synthesized by tomato plants. The compound is thought to be used by tomatoes to fend off bugs and its artificial use in a mimetic role has proved effective at repelling numerous types of insects including mosquitoes, ticks, and cockroaches. The lipid, called IBI-246 or methyl nonyl ketone, is found in the stem of tomato plants and seems to work just as well as the noxious chemical DEET in keeping mosquitoes and ticks at bay; however, while DEET is listed by the EPA as a class III toxic compound (slightly toxic), IBI-246 has been in use in cosmetics and dog/cat repellants for year and is listed by the EPA as a class IV toxic compound (practically non-toxic). What's more, IBI-246 is biodegradable and not petroleum based. The company Insect Biotechnology Inc. holds the license for IBI-246 and is working to transform the compound into a usable product. Alan Brandt, president and chief operating officer of Insect Biotechnology Inc., hopes that this biomimetic repellant will someday be a viable alternative to DEET.
DEET, which is a topical insect repellant in ubiqitous use throughout the planet, is made from petroleum derivatives. Moreover, studies suggest its use can causes rashes, swelling, itching, eye irritation, and even slurred speech, confusion, and seizures. IBI-246 could be purified from tomato biomass or synthesized via a number of sustainable, petroleum-independent processes. Moreover, it has been aproved for topical use for years as a cosmetic compound.
Repelling insects with chemicals is a simple task. However, discovering such a chemical that is non-toxic and sustainable is not simple. Non-toxic repellants are especially vital for topical use.