Cambridge bio-bullets to gun down global pest
BioBullets, a Cambridge University spin-out, will attempt to demonstrate the efficacy and commercial viability of the new technology when it meets the unnamed firm later this year.
If successful, BioBullets believes sales could quickly follow and uptake balloon.
The zebra mussel, whose origins lie in Eastern Europe, is quickly becoming one of the world’s biggest environmental and ecological pests and has already cost the North American water industry around $3bn.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that over the next decade it could cost US and Canadian water users another $5bn in the Great Lakes region alone.
This invasive freshwater mussel colonises just about all types of solid surfaces including intake pipes and filter screens and has forced US power plants and water works to close for days on end.
As well as the environmental problems presented by chlorine control, the mussels can sense it and other toxic substances and limit their exposure to the chemicals by closing their valves for as long as three weeks.
The solution developed by Dr David Aldridge and his team at the University’s Zoology department, the group behind BioBullets, bypasses these problems by packing potassium chloride, which is deadly to zebra mussels but doesn’t affect most other organisms, into microscopic particles made of fats: BioBullets.
This Trojan horse technique gets the toxic compound past the mussels’ defences as they transfer the particles along their gills and into their mouths.
The particles rapidly dissolve in the animals’ stomachs releasing a lethal dose of potassium chloride.
BioBullets was formed in 2000 with seed funding from the UK Government in the form of various research grants.
It is now applying for further funding under the DTI’s Global Watch programme, which identifies technology opportunities in foreign markets.
Dr Aldridge said: “We met with the UK water industry in the summer and are now applying for another DTI grant for work in North America, which we hope will soon lead us to work with a company in Toronto, Canada.
“Great Lakes regulators have hinted if the technology is commercially viable and a true alternative to chlorine, it could replace it and then it would take almost all the market. It could really snowball.”
BioBullets’ focus is the Great Lakes market, where the zebra mussel problem is most severe. It is thought that they were brought over from Europe by ship, unknowingly hidden in the ballast water.
First noted in the Great Lakes in 1988, within a year they had colonised Lake Erie and then quickly spread to the other lakes. They next made their way out of Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River basin and beyond.
Dr Aldridge said: “People have tried just about everything to stall zebra mussels, but there is no commercially suitable option apart from chlorines, which become toxic when mixed with organic matter at high levels.
“This should be a cause for concern, but authorities have to turn a blind eye. In one instance zebra mussels caused a power station to close down, so they have to use the chlorine, they can’t not have power. The Great Lakes are so polluted at the moment.”
According to Dr Aldridge there are 92 power stations in the US on the Great Lakes, each one paying an average of $500,000 each, every year, to deal with the problem, creating a $46 million annual market.
“We can put our particles on the intake of a pipe, just one dose once a year,” says Dr Aldridge. “It can be put in pipelines: irrigation, drinking water, power plants.
“Global Watch will fund £15k, which will then be matched by BioBullets. We then hope to develop and conduct some industry trials of the product.
“We will then need to look at regulatory approval which is a challenge, but the products are pretty common and benign, so it should not be a problem.”
Although BioBullets is focusing on the North American market, its first product sale will most likely be to the UK water industry, where zebra mussels have become an issue in drinking water plants, rather than power.
Dr Aldridge said: “In the UK zebra mussels started causing major problems over the last four to five years and the water industry here is very aware of it. Over the last five years the cost to the industry will have been £3m.
“They are appearing everywhere and are encrusting just about every solid surface available in rivers such as the Thames and Great Ouse. What’s more, they’re smothering and killing some of our native mussels. Last year zebra mussels caused a number of boats to crash in the Thames because the propellers and rudders were so fouled by zebra mussels.
“The UK Water Industry is working very closely with us and Thames Water and Anglia Water have assisted with preliminary trials. All are trying to identify a solution and are excited by an alternative to chlorine.”
It is unclear why the mussels are now thriving in the UK as they have been here since the 1820s, but their growth is mirroring that of the US, creating another important market for BioBullets.
Dr Aldridge said: “It hit Ireland in the mid-90s, spreading through the Shannon system. It then invaded Spain in 2001 and the country has since suffered industry problems.”
The technology underlying BioBullets’ work is also applicable elsewhere and Dr Aldridge believes the company’s patent is robust enough to create a platform for use in other markets.
He said: “BioBullets could be loaded with other cargo to control other pests or to feed useful species. We have a broad patent that could be applicable to blackfly larvae, bryozoans, the Asian clam and sponges.
“The Asian clam has already been found in the Thames, the Norfolk Broads and the River Ouse.
“It is thought to cost industry in the US $1bn a year. There is also the Golden Mussel in the South America, which presents the same problem as the zebra mussel in North America.”