Innovative and eco-friendly strategies for modern-day crop protection should make it possible to effectively manage pests without affecting other species.
What is the most effective way to protect crops from harmful insects without endangering other species such as bees and people? Bioresource researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Giessen are developing innovative, eco-friendly strategies for modern-day crop protection. One of the approaches developed by the research team in collaboration with university working groups is based on RNA interference (RNAi) technology. “We modify crops such as rapeseed and barley in such a way that they produce double-strand RNA. This RNA harms those insect pests, in particular, that eat crops like these, deactivating a gene that only occurs in these insects and is essential for their development,” says Prof. Andreas Vilcinskas, describing the principle. Precision tools that enable sustainable, environmentally compatible crop protection can be developed on the basis of this high specificity.
But a variety of methodological problems first need to be solved. For example, the double-strand RNA used must only deactivate the gene in pest insects – other organisms that eat the crop must not be affected. However, there is insufficient acceptance of genetically modified crops – and thus double-strand RNA – in the German and European markets. Fraunhofer researchers in Giessen are thus developing a method based on sprayable double-strand RNA molecules that targets specific species for environmentally compatible application. Innovative formulation methods had to be developed for this purpose. In response to the decline in insect populations, the German federal government has made the decision to reduce the use of chemical-based pesticides. RNAi technology offers a sustainable alternative.