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Can we save the bees?


Of the many challenges facing honeybees, the biggest is barely visible to the naked eye: varroa destructor, commonly known as the varroa mite. It’s only about a millimeter long but has a brutally effective reproduction system, feeding on and infecting bee larvae. In a few weeks, the varroa can destroy an entire hive, and the mites are increasingly resistant to traditional treatments, which are usually chemical applications. Beekeepers lost almost half of their managed hives between April 2022 and April 2023, and varroa was the leading cause.

Marta Ortega-Valle, SF ’08, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy & Sustainability Officer of GreenLight Biosciences

That’s where GreenLight Biosciences comes in. Using ribonucleic acid (RNA), the company has developed an anti-mite treatment that’s currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The biopesticide is designed to impact only the mite without damaging the hive or its honey. According to the company, it improves bee survival by up to 70% while respecting biodiversity.

“We want to provide alternatives to farmers so that they can be competitive and, at the same time, use technologies that are sophisticated enough that they respect biodiversity, pollinators, and the environment,” says Marta Ortega-Valle, SF ’08, co-founder of GreenLight Bio. Considering that, according to the USDA, pollinators are responsible for 35% of the world’s crops, it’s an essential solution that farmers need urgently.

Ortega-Valle and Andrey Zarur, SM ’96, PhD ’00, along with their scientific co-founder, Jim Swartz SM ’75, SCD ’78, founded GreenLight Bio with the goal of using the power of biology to help farmers with threats to their crops. The company develops products that they call “climate smart,” meaning they’re competitive while being sustainable.

In this case, that meant creating a countermeasure to the varroa’s efficacy that wouldn’t harm the bee. Using RNA, the team is developing a product that directs varroa mite cells to stop producing a targeted protein; this ultimately inhibits the mite’s ability to reproduce. The treatment, which looks like a packet filled with syrup, has perforated holes that allow the bees to bring the solution back into the hive. The mite is the only organism the syrup is designed to affect: no longer able to procreate, it becomes functionally useless as a parasite. Beekeepers who participated in a GreenLight Bio trial cited their hives “full of happy healthy bees” in a 2023 TIME article.

With GreenLight Bio’s platform, scientists can move quickly from in vitro testing to greenhouse or hive testing, and then to larger-scale trials in the field. Regulatory approval can take years, but Ortega-Valle says GreenLight Bio is hoping to hear from the EPA in 2025 about their as-yet-unnamed varroa treatment.

The outlook is promising. In 2023, GreenLight Bio was selected to participate in the AIM for Climate Innovation Sprint as a part of the organization’s mission to invest in agriculture and food systems innovation. And the company already has a product that received regulatory approval in 2023 and is being sold commercially: an RNA treatment that prevents the Colorado potato beetle's ability to process food.

The company is working on nine additional projects, with more in the pipeline, including a treatment for the fall armyworm, which consumes maize and sorghum and primarily affects crops in Africa and Brazil. Ultimately, they hope to use their RNA-driven treatments to combat pests, fungi, and weeds.

An engineer by training, Ortega-Valle decided she wanted to use technology to solve important problems. She chose to attend MIT Sloan because of its integration with science and technology, and says that, during her time as a student, “I saw that it was possible in that ecosystem to create something that didn’t exist, that could remove a problem that couldn’t be solved before. What we have now is a pipeline with a strong value proposition for farmers while also degrading quickly in soil and water, limiting the carbon footprint, and supporting biodiversity.”

“I saw the future,” she adds.

For more info Lindsey Fieldman Director, Brand Strategy, OC (617) 715-4851