A natural, sustainable alternative to pesticides which targets specific pests without harming pollinators is currently in development.
Estimated global crop loss to pests – including insects, plant viruses and fungi – is around $100 billion every year, equating to a 40 percent loss in global agricultural production.
But there is a significant need for innovative approaches to crop protection, driven by the need for greater food production, pest expansion linked to climate change and the push for more sustainable farming practices.
The new pesticide alternative, being developed by the University of Sheffield and Syngenta, could help achieve food security whilst protecting vital pollinators.
Researchers are helping to develop a pioneering biocontrol that uses dsRNA-based biocontrols to target plant pests.
RNA is a molecule essential for the coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes.
RNA-based biocontrols exploit a naturally occurring process called RNA interference (RNAi) in which double stranded RNA (dsRNA) essentially stops the production of a critical protein in the target pest.
New research published by the scientists in Analyst, a Royal Society of Chemistry journal, suggests this new approach could be key to addressing the threat to food security posed by plant pests.
Professor Mark Dickman, from the Institute for Sustainable Food and Director of Research said: “The RNA biocontrols we are working on with Syngenta can help to address the sustainability challenge for farming.
“The idea is that dsRNA is applied to the crops, then along comes the pest, which eats the crop.
“The dsRNA molecule then kills the pest by triggering the RNAi mechanism. The advantage of this is that we can be highly selective.
“We have the ability to target a specific pest while protecting beneficial species, such as honeybees.
Professor Dickman added: “A key challenge will be making enough of these biocontrols which are natural, biodegradable and sustainable, and to deliver them to the crops.
“We’re currently working on production strategies to make the RNA biocontrols and methods to analyse this important product,” he said.
Syngenta has been developing the science behind RNA-based biocontrols for several years, led by scientists at its Ghent Innovation Centre in Belgium.