Scientists May Have Discovered a Replacement for Pesticides

© Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted January 11, 2017

In the fight to save the world's crops from pests bent on destroying them, a group of scientists at the University of Queensland have developed a ground breaking product that packs a powerful punch. BioClay, an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemical-laden pesticides, utilizes natural means to trigger a crop's self-preservation instincts and stop plant diseases in their tracks.

Developed by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), the revolutionary new spray could change the way rural sectors grow and protect even the most pesticide-resistant crops. According to Professor Neena Mitter, agricultural biotechnologist and research leader, throughout the testing period researchers sprayed crops with a "nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens."

"Once BioClay is applied, the plant 'thinks' it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease," the researcher says. As ABC reports, the clay, which contains molecules of RNA, a sibling of DNA, can switch off certain gene expressions, lowering a plant's susceptibility to a virus. Once a virus makes contact with a plant, the RNA will kill the pathogen before it can wreak its havoc. The innovative spray serves to bind the RNA molecules to the plant for a long-lasting effect.

Mitter stresses that need for a universal agricultural control agent is greater than ever, "driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance." Though traditional pesticides linger on plants, posing a potential threat to environmental and human health, BioClay naturally degrades after doing its job to protect the plant, reducing any of the typical risk factors.

While the world's largest chemical companies, such as Monsanto, are racing to develop similar technology, the QAAFI and AIBN researchers are the first to achieve and publish long-lasting results. And though RNA pesticides have been criticized in the past for their high cost, Mitter hopes that with the use of clay, which is "cheap to manufacture," they will be able to develop a "commercially viable" product that farmers everywhere will be able to afford.

"BioClay is a beautiful combination in biology and nanotechnology," Mitter says, adding that "the cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland." And maybe even a cleaner, greener world overall.

(h/t Phys.org)

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