RNA technology brought us effective COVID vaccines. Next up: ‘Precisely targeted, environmentally-friendly’ techniques that dramatically reduce use of problematic chemicals

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Varroa mite on a bee. Credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Varroa mite on a bee. Credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey

[RNA-based COVID vaccines let] a vaccine-recipient’s immune system learn to recognise a crucial part of the enemy before the real thing turns up.

Helping to make proteins is not, however, RNA’s only job. Among many other things it is central to a process called RNA interference, which prevents, rather than facilitates, the manufacture of specific proteins, [called RNAi].

Some biologists, though, think RNAi may have an important non-medical use as well, as a precisely targeted, environmentally friendly pesticide.

The theory is simple. Identify a protein crucial to the survival of the pest in question. Tailor a specific interfering RNA molecule to sabotage production of that protein. Deliver it into the bodies of the pests. Then wait for them all to die.

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Top of the list of potential beneficiaries are honeybees. These semi-domesticated insects, important not only for their eponymous product, but also as pollinators, are plagued by Varroa destructor, a mite a couple of millimetres across 

GreenLight Biosciences, a company in Boston, wants to help. It has bought from Bayer, a German pharmaceutical and life-science firm, the rights to an experimental Varroa pesticide based on RNAi. Andrey Zarur, GreenLight’s boss, hopes this will succeed where other methods fail.

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