RNA technology gave us a COVID vaccine. It could also help control plant pests without insecticides

Western corn rootworm. Credit: Jim Kalisch/University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Western corn rootworm. Credit: Jim Kalisch/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

With the development of Pfizer’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, RNA technology has been dominating the news cycle.

A decade ago, Monsanto discovered that RNA could directly modify the expression of plant genes.

Monsanto (now Bayer) and other seed companies have started employing the extraordinary power of RNA interference (RNAi) in spray form, to knockdown a destructive insect’s genes, effectively killing them by shutting off genes that they need to survive. The RNAi spray, can directly genetically modify plants, by entering into the plant’s cells through the leaves.

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They also took over a company called Beeologics, which had found a way to introduce RNA into sugar water that bees feed on in order to kill a parasitic mite that infests hives.

Crops that express double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules are being developed that take advantage of the endogenous RNAi machinery of target insects and can produce highly specific insecticidal oligonucleotides (siRNA) for agricultural pest control. DvSnf7 dsRNA expressed in GM maize confers protection against the western corn rootworm, a threat known as the “billion dollar pest” because of the damage it can cause.

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These new technologies are helping us develop new crops and traits to meet the demands of an ever-growing population and the challenge of climate change, and there are bright spots with regard to a changing regulatory landscape with updated guidelines for faster approvals.

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