Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article improperly referred to Sonoma Lab Works as a product manufacturer, when this company is a product testing laboratory.
University Engineering Team Changes the Game for Cultivators
Pesticides enable mass efficiency in agricultural production. Many have toxic effects on the environment and human health. Organophosphates (OPs) are one such class of chemicals common among farmers, including cannabis cultivators.
OPs are considered the most widely used class of pesticides in the world. But they pose grave risks. The World Health Organization points out that “run-off into water bodies can cause harmful effects on aquatic species, terrestrial species…and humans that reside or recreate in the vicinity.” OPs are neurotoxins commonly used in nerve gas. Contamination costs 300,000 lives each year.  They cannot be easily removed or remediated due to their hydrophobic nature.
Not until now.
I spoke to Jin Kim Montclare, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering and Cofounder of Brooklyn Bioscience. This start-up of engineers and scientists from NYU found a way to remediate and detoxify OPs. This discovery stretches across cannabis, wine, and all agricultural sectors.
“There have been numerous cases of people being poisoned by food contaminated with organophosphates (OPs). This especially affects vulnerable populations like children in developing countries,” Montclare explained. “Our lab wanted to develop a treatment to remove pesticides from food to make sure that it was safe for everyone to consume, so we looked to nature to find solutions.”
Montclare and her colleagues found a naturally occurring enzyme — phosphotriesterase (PTE) — that could break down some OPs. They then modified PTE to form an enhanced version. This powdered enzyme is added to water to create a detoxifying wash. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
“The two problems facing PTE were heat stability and promiscuity,” Montclare said. Promiscuity refers to the ability of the enzyme to break down a variety of OP pesticides, not just a single one. This is where engineering prowess came into play.
“The key to the first problem lay in the interface between the two parts of the enzyme. We mutated the part of the enzyme at the interface and added a new fluorinated amino acid, which is not found in naturally occurring proteins, to improve its stability.”
With stability achieved, the engineering team then focused on promiscuity. They changed the chemistry around the pocket of the active site to allow for a greater variety of pesticides to fit in and break down. “When we made these changes, we found that it improved the enzyme’s function, but made it prone to aggregation during production, so ongoing mutation work is focusing on improving its solubility in water.”
Brooklyn Bioscience utilized a type of technology known as computational design to make this innovation possible. “Computational design allows us to predict how the enzyme will behave with every mutation, thus saving us valuable time and resources,” Montclare continued. “For example, the enzyme protein sequence is made up of about 400 amino acid residues and computational analysis allows us to identify the 10-15 best candidates for mutation.” The team also used Rosetta, a protein modeling software, to improve solubility and ensure that mutations didn’t disrupt the enzyme’s structure.
If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking that’s fine and well, but what does this have to do with cannabis?
The application is obvious for vintners — grape cultivators wash the grapes with skin intact prior to fermentation. This means PTE could easily detoxify grapes treated with OPs.
But Brooklyn Bioscience envisions their altered PTE changing the game for cannabis cultivators. When inhaled, OPs are extremely toxic, causing rapid symptoms and high mortality.  States that require analytical testing for cannabis generally impose strict limitations on OP residue (e.g., California). 
“Cannabis farmers can spray this right onto their plants to detoxify them,” Montclare said. “We’re also working on a way of treating cannabis extracts during the production of CBD [cannabidiol] oil since these pesticides tend to be concentrated during that process.” Montclare’s team is in the process of selecting cannabis growers for a pilot-scale proof of concept.
“Most immediately, it will prevent the loss of revenue due to preventable contamination in batches of CBD oil, such as the recent one that cost [a manufacturer] nearly a quarter of a million dollars after they found their batch exceeded the limits on malathion.”
Brooklyn Bioscience currently faces two challenges: storage and shipping methods for scalability, and federal safety regulations from the US Food and Drug Administration. But these are a drop in the bucket compared to the feat of engineering itself. And a recent $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) helps.
“We are proud to have been awarded the NSF’s Partnership for Innovation grant,” Montclare stated. “We’ll be using the money both in the lab to further develop PTE, improving its solubility and therefore making its production more efficient, as well as out of the lab to drive our search for customers and run a pilot-scale test of our enzyme.”
Brooklyn Bioscience is also a staunch supporter of stimulating interest in higher science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education amongst young women and underrepresented minorities in middle and high school. They have hosted a number of high school students in their lab to foster STEM education and promote the pursuit of careers in STEM.
Montclare feels passionate about the benefits of genetic engineering. After all, her team designed PTE using these techniques. She believes that fear of GMOs is ungrounded: “People often misunderstand the nature of genetically modified organisms. The term “GMO” spooks people and consumers tend towards products labelled “GMO-free.” When they’re used responsibly, however, GMOs are nothing to be afraid of. They have all kinds of positive applications. For example, insulin and Herceptin, life-saving drugs for diabetes and breast cancer, respectively, are both produced using GMOs.”
Early adopters of PTE include vintners and tea farmers. But the sky is the limit.
“PTE will help everyone, from the individual consumer, to the grower, to the planet. We hope to create safer products by reducing the amount of pesticide residue present. In the long run, it will also create more sustainable and greener cannabis growing practices by breaking down pesticides that would otherwise end up in the soil or in farm runoff.”
- Adeyinka, A, and Pierre, L. “Organophosphates.” StatPearls [Internet], Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499860/
- Sullivan, et al. “Determination of Pesticide Residues in Cannabis Smoke.” Journal of Toxicology, vol.3, 2013, https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2013/378168. Journal Impact Factor= 1.205, Times Cited=32
- Seltenrich, N. “Into the Weeds: Regulating Pesticides in Cannabis.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol.127, no.4, 2019. Journal Impact Factor= 8.05, Times Cited = 2