Plants are among many eukaryotes that can ‘turn off’ one or more of their genes by using a process called RNA interference to block protein translation. Researchers are now weaponizing this by engineering crops to produce specific RNA fragments that, upon ingestion by insects, initiate RNA interference to shut down a target gene essential for life or reproduction, killing or sterilizing the insects.
As chemical pesticides raise concerns over insect resistance, collateral environmental damage, and human exposure risks, transgenic methods are becoming an attractive option for future pest control. For instance, certain strains of corn and cotton have been modified to produce protein toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that poison certain worms, beetles, and moths. RNA interference adds another degree of subtlety, by instead shutting down essential genes in pests that consume crops.
An RNA interference strategy could also address environmental and human toxicity questions around chemical pesticides.
[The researchers] expect RNA interference technology to be roughly 6 to 7 years away from the field, but they are cautiously optimistic about its potential to change the debate around GMO technology in agriculture.
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