‘Gene-silencing’ technique is a crop protection game changer

This spray uses RNA to trick a plant into shutting genes off, thus evading diseases

Most crop protection products act by attacking and killing a pest. But a new technique targets the crops themselves, giving them an added ability to ward off pests and diseases by targeting their genes.

Researchers at the U.K.’s University of Surrey and Australia’s University of Queensland, have developed a non-toxic, degradable spray which is capable of disabling specific genes in plants.

‘BioClay’ spray protects plants from disease-causing pathogens without altering their DNA or relying on toxic ingredients.

The research, published in the journal Nature Plants, could help reduce the estimated annual loss of 30 to 40 per cent of global crop yields. It also offers a possible way to address the need for higher production, growing regulatory demands, pesticide resistance, and concern about global warming driving the spread of disease.

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The researchers have found that by combining clay nanoparticles with designer ‘RNAs’ (molecules with essential roles in gene biology), it is possible to silence certain genes within plants. The spray they have developed has been shown to give plants virus protection for at least 20 days following a single application. When sprayed with BioClay, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself.

The latest research overcomes the instability of ‘naked’ RNAs sprayed on plants, which has previously prevented them from being used effectively for virus protection. By loading the agents onto clay nanoparticles, they do not wash off, enabling them to be released over an extended period of time before degrading.

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