Thursday, January 30, 2014

Genetic tinkering holds new promise

Genetic researchers are pursuing a new avenue to rid farms of insects and weeds that curtail crop production – RNA interference.

The genetic technique shuts down a gene that the insect or weed needs to survive.

Because researchers select a gene that only shows up in that specific insect or weed, they believe it will pose no threat to anything else.

Monsanto is researching the technology to tackle corn root worms.

Its approach is to develop corn hybrids that contain the gene-silencing RNA; it does its work when the beetle stage of corn rootworms munch on the genetically-modified corn plant.

The science behind this research earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006 and at the time was considered a breakthrough for human medicine.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has convened a meeting of scientists this week to ponder the risks and benefits of applying the technology to farming.

Advocates say it’s the best thing since the discovery of pesticides. Others worry that we don’t know enough so could be unleashing technology that will cause great harm.

“To attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more na├»ve than our use of DDT in the 1950s,” the National Honey Bee Advisory Board said in comments submitted to the E.P.A. before the meeting, at the agency’s conference center in Arlington, Va.

While DDT proved effective, it also had a broader impact than intended and harmed beneficial species, such as birds.

“If you use a neuro-poison, it kills everything,” said Subba Reddy Palli, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky who is researching the technology, which is called RNA interference. “But this one is very target-specific.”