Researchers in the UK are developing a natural, sustainable alternative to pesticides that targets specific pests without harming beneficial pollinators.
The researchers of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, working in collaboration with industry partner and agriculture company Syngenta, are developing double stranded RNA-based biocontrols to target plant pests.
The RNA is a molecule essential for the coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes. RNA-based biocontrols exploit a naturally occurring process called RNA interference (RNAi) in which double stranded RNA (dsRNA) essentially stops the production of a critical protein in the target pest.
New research published in Analyst, a Royal Society of Chemistry journal, suggested this new approach could be key to addressing the threat to food security posed by plant pests, which account for a 40 per cent loss in global agricultural production and costs USD 100 billion every year.
"The RNA biocontrols we are working on with Syngenta can help address the sustainability challenge to farming. The idea is that dsRNA is applied to the crops, then along comes the pest, which eats the crop," Professor Mark Dickman from the Institute for Sustainable Food, who led the study, said.
"The dsRNA molecule then kills the pest by triggering the RNAi mechanism. The advantage of this is that we can be highly selective. We have the ability to target a specific pest while protecting beneficial species, such as honeybees," he said.
Dickman, who is also the Director of Research at the University of Sheffield's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said a challenge will be making enough of these biocontrols which are natural, biodegradable and sustainable.
"We're currently working on production strategies to make the RNA biocontrols and methods to analyse this important product," Dickman said.
Mike Bean, Head of RNAi Platforms at Syngenta, said, "Syngenta has been developing the science behind RNA-based biocontrols for several years, led by scientists at our Ghent Innovation Centre in Belgium. We partner with a number of leading academic institutions and industry organisations to help address the many challenges involved in moving from concept to product.
"We are delighted to work with the experts at the University of Sheffield's Institute for Sustainable Food on some of the dsRNA production and analysis challenges as we continue to develop the high quality science and data that will be needed to bring this innovative and exciting product to market for the benefit of farmers."