An ingredient in a common artificial sweetener found in many kitchens could provide a nontoxic, natural and safer insecticide, a study suggests.
Erythritol, the chief component of an artificial sweetener sold as Truvia, has been found to be toxic when fed to fruit flies, researchers say.
The life span of fruit flies consuming erythritol is significantly reduced, they report in the journal PLOS One, from a natural average of around 40 to 50 days down to just five.
The researchers are quick to reassure that Truvia poses no danger to humans, as the erythritol contained in it is a naturally occurring compound found in a number of kinds of fruit.
In 2001 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it as a food additive, and studies have demonstrated humans possess a high tolerance level for erythritol.
The same cannot be said of fruit flies, apparently.
An insecticide based on erythritol, nontoxic to humans, would not pollute the environment, say the researchers who've applied for a patent for such a product.
"We are not going to see the planet sprayed with erythritol, and the chances for widespread crop application are slim," says researcher Sean O'Donnell, a biology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "But on a small scale, in places where insects will come to a bait, consume it and die, this could be huge."
Fruit flies have even been shown to prefer erythritol to other kinds of sweet food sources, the researchers said.
Exactly how the compound kills the flies is unknown, they admit, but other studies suggest it may inhibit their ability to efficiently absorb water and nutrients.
The initial impetus for the research came not from a university lab but rather grew out of a science project conducted by grade-school son of another of the study authors.
Simon Marenda, son of Drexel biology Professor Daniel Marenda, wanted to examine the safety of several brands of artificial sweeteners when his parents announced their decision to stop using sugar three years ago.
After feeding fruit flies with several brands of artificial sweeteners, Simon discovered flies fed on Truvia quickly died.
That impressed his father enough for him to pursue a research program.
"I would have never studied it first without the initial inquisitiveness of a sixth grader," Daniel Marenda said.
The researchers say they plan to conduct further studies to see if the insecticide effects of Truvia might work on other insects such as cockroaches, termites, ants or bed bugs.