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Move over pesticides! This new RNA vaccine could help keep crops safe

Chemical pesticides play a vital role in modern agriculture by helping to protect crops against a range of pests and diseases. However, while there is no denying how useful they are, they also come with potential negatives. Fortunately, researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) may be ready to help with a new high-tech solution.

They have created a new eco-friendly RNA-based vaccine, designed to help plants fight back without damage to the surrounding environment. The vaccine works by triggering RNA interference. This describes an automatic defense mechanism found in plants, animals, and other eukaryotic organisms.

“To reduce the application of chemical pesticides, our technology proposes the treatment of plants with nature-derived double-stranded dsRNA molecules,” Manfred Heinlein, a cell biology expert who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “These molecules strengthen the plant’s own pathogen defense systems through a natural mechanism that relies on nucleotide sequence homology between the dsRNA and the invading pathogen. We have developed a novel dsRNA production system in bacteria, allowing easy design and scaling up of dsRNA production upon demand — and demonstrated the utility of the system in plant protection against a viral infection.”

The RNA-based vaccine was shown to be most effective against virus infection when applied through small wounds in the surface of the leaves. To fight intracellular viruses and other intracellular pathogens, such vaccines could be applied via high-pressure spraying. But the vaccines may also be effective if sprayed directly onto a plant’s leaves without wounding, to fight pathogens and insects that take up dsRNA from the leaf surface. Since many viruses are carried by insects, this has the potential for controlling such viruses. Unlike regular pesticides, the vaccine is biodegradable and therefore doesn’t risk accumulating in the way that other pesticides do.

“It would be great to see this technology further developed and commercialized,” Heinlein said. “However, so far we have applied our RNA-based plant protection technology only in small scale for a proof of concept, using a model plant and a model virus. For practical applications, it will be important to demonstrate that this approach is also efficient against important pathogens in field crops. Moreover, to produce dsRNA at low cost, the minimum degree of dsRNA purification required for efficient protection must be determined.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Plant Biology Journal.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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