Pests threaten crops around the world, in turn threatening food security for communities both small and large. The go-to solution is often to spray at risk crops with chemicals, which can be effective but expensive and opens up a Pandora’s box of environmental problems. Chemicals can seep into water supplies, cause toxicity, and contribute to pesticide-resistant pathogens.
A research team at the University of Queensland in Australia is developing an alternative to chemicals called BioClay, which they say is effective and environmentally sustainable.
BioClay is a cocktail of nano-sized clay carrying double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which can be used to protect plants from specific pathogens. “When BioClay is sprayed onto a plant, dsRNA — which is specific to the virus — is slowly released from the clay and enters the plant,” lead researcher Neena Mitter told Digital Trends. “This activates a pathway in the plant that is a natural defense mechanism.”
In other words, the plant reacts as if it’s being attacked by the dsRNA and builds up its defenses, much like how how humans build up specific defenses when injected with vaccines. Enzymes within the plant’s pathway slice the dsRNA into tiny bits that then attack the pathogen if and when the plant gets infected. There is no change to the plant’s genome, according to Mitter, and the product is nontoxic.
“The ‘clay’ in BioClay is completely degradable,” Mitter said. “It breaks down into its elements in the presence of moisture and carbon dioxide. The RNA is also short-lived in the plant system and is extremely specific and will only kill the pathogen we have targeted.” Chemicals like pesticides, on the other hand, can cause waterway toxicity, have negative impacts on human health, and kill certain insects that are actually beneficial to the plant.
The researchers hope BioClay will be commercially available within the next five years and, as a number of companies are currently developing mass production methods for dsRNA, they hope the product will be affordable.
A paper detailing the research was published this month in the journal Nature Plants.