SCIENTISTS and biotechnology companies are developing what could become the next powerful weapon in the war on pests — one that harnesses a Nobel Prize-winning discovery to kill insects and pathogens by disabling their genes.
By zeroing in on a genetic sequence unique to one species, the technique has the potential to kill a pest without harming beneficial insects. That would be a big advance over chemical pesticides.
“If you use a neuro-poison, it kills everything,” said Subba Reddy Palli, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky who is researching the technology, which is called RNA interference. “But this one is very target-specific.”
But some specialists fear releasing gene-silencing agents into fields could harm beneficial insects, especially among organisms that have a common genetic makeup, and possibly even human health.
RNA interference is a natural phenomenon that is set off by double-stranded RNA.
Using RNAi in insects, at least for beetles, should be easier than in people. Beetles, including the corn rootworm, can simply eat the double-stranded RNA to set off the effect. One way to get insects to do that is to genetically engineer crops to produce double-stranded RNA corresponding to an essential gene of the pest.
The double-stranded RNA could also be incorporated in sprays.
Monsanto is developing a spray that would shore up one of its biggest product lines – crops resistant to its Roundup herbicide.