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Agrospheres, a student-led, Charlottesville-based start-up, has created a new biologic treatment that safely degrades harmful pesticides from crops in a matter of hours, condensing a process that can take weeks or months to occur naturally.

The following is an excerpt from Katie McNally's UVA Today story: 

Imagine you’re a farmer whose crops are nearing their harvest time. You’ve just sprayed them with standard pesticides to keep the bugs away until the fruit is ready, and then you see a report that there will be huge storm in your area this week.

You want to pick the fruit a little early so you don’t risk losing some, or all, of the crop due to bad weather, but it’s dangerous. You’d be breaking the law and putting the health of your workers at risk if you begin picking the fruit before the pesticide has the chance to fully degrade off the plants naturally, a process that usually takes at least two weeks.

A new undergraduate-led company at the University of Virginia has a solution for this common problem in agriculture. “Agrospheres” is a bioengineering start-up that has created a solution that can be sprayed on pesticide-treated plants to safely and rapidly remove potentially harmful pesticide residue.

The spray is created from “mini cells,” microscopic biologic platforms that deliver pesticide-degrading enzymes. It makes plants safer for workers to handle and allows farmers more control over their harvest time.

“What we mean by a ‘platform’ is that the technology we’re using is a spherical bio-particle we’re attaching enzymes to. Essentially it’s just a carrier that can be modified to work with different enzymes for different purposes, from degrading pesticides to breaking down other substances,” fourth-year biomedical engineering major Ameer Shakeel said.

Shakeel helped co-found Agrospheres with 2016 graduate Payam Pourtaheri while they were both still students in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. They began working with UVA pharmacology professor Mark Kester as their adviser and eventual co-founder as they considered applications for the mini cell platform. 

The team is collaborating with local partners Early Mountain Vineyards and Veritas Vineyards to test their spray on small sections of their grape crops.

Read the full story here.