Gene silencing technique to advance crop protection

Nontoxic, degradable, nanotech-based spray gives food crops virus protection against major pest and disease threats.

January 16, 2017

2 Min Read
Gene silencing technique to advance crop protection

Researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Queensland have developed a revolutionary new crop protection technique that offers an environmentally friendly alternative to genetically modified crops and chemical pesticides, according to a news release.

The research, published in Nature Plants, could have huge benefits for agriculture and could positively affect communities around the world. Plant pests and pathogens are estimated to reduce global crop yields by 30-40% per year, constraining global food security. At the same time, the need for increased production in the midst of regulatory demands, pesticide resistance and concern that global warming is driving the spread of disease means there is a growing need for new approaches to crop protection.

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 — known as BioClay — 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 spraying "naked" RNAs on plants, which 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.

The BioClay technology, which is based on nanoparticles used in the development of human drug treatments, has a number of advantages over existing chemical-based pesticides, according to the news release. Since BioClay is nontoxic and degradable, there is less risk to the environment and human health. It can also be used in a highly targeted way to protect crops against specific pathogens.

Professor G.Q. Max Lu, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey in the U.K. and co-author of the research paper, said: "This is one of the best examples of nanoparticles being effective for biological molecular delivery with a controlled-release rate for combating diseases in plants or animals. The same nanoparticle technology invented and patented in my laboratory at the University of Queensland was used for effective targeted drug delivery. It was licensed to an Oxford-based pharmaceutical company and is now being commercialized for drug development."

The research paper, "Clay Nanosheets for Stable Delivery of RNA Interference as a Topical Application to Protect Plants against Viruses," was published in Nature Plants on Jan. 10. The research was led by professors Neena Mitter and Gordon Xu at the University of Queensland, in collaboration with professor Lu at the University of Surrey.

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