BioProtect is developing and testing an alternative form of crop protection based on double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), a nature-derived molecule that occurs in all organisms and is rapidly degraded in soils. The main aim is to help reduce the use of chemical crop protection without risking yield losses in arable farming. Since the use of chemical crop protection products could also pose risks to human health and ecosystems, further development of this new crop protection system can make agriculture more environmentally friendly and sustainable.
BioProtect is thus a research initiative in response to a legislation adopted by the European Parliament (Directive 2009/128/EC) aiming at reducing the use of chemical plant protection products and calling for an in-depth reconsideration of crop protection solutions throughout Europe.
A stakeholder dialogue starting in 2023 will accompany the research project. The focus will be on practical application issues and environmental and consumer protection. To this end, we are inviting representatives from agriculture, trade, politics, risk assessment and environmental and consumer protection to a series of workshops. If you want to stay in touch, you can subscribe to our newsletter.
Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) can protect plants from viral and fungal diseases as well as from infestation by insect pests.
How does dsRNA act as a plant protection agent?
The promising new way of protecting plants is based mainly on a natural process: so-called RNA interference (RNAi). RNAi is a naturally evolved mechanism of gene regulation in almost all organisms that leads to the targeted silencing of genes. It also acts in the defence against foreign RNA, such as viruses.
RNAi is triggered by dsRNAs. These molecules are converted by the organism into small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) that bind to complementary messenger RNAs (mRNAs) with the same sequence and thus stop protein biosynthesis for a specific gene. In playing a central role in gene regulation and antiviral defence, dsRNAs are natural molecules in cells of almost all organisms.
If dsRNAs are now sprayed on plants, they can be used to activate the silencing of specific genes of pathogens or pests and thus stop the infection or damaging process. The DNA sequence of the plant or the pathogen is not changed in the process. The new plant protection approach is a kind of vaccination of the plant with dsRNA molecules that activate the plant’s naturally owned mechanisms to control gene expression and pathogens.
Compared to conventional crop protection products, a dsRNA-based approach has three major advantages:
High specificity: The action of dsRNA against the pathogen is very specific. Only those dsRNA molecules that have the same nucleotide sequence as the pathogen are effective. Other genes in the plant remain unaffected by this process.
No residues: dsRNA molecules are degraded very quickly and do not accumulate in the environment or food.
No resistance: It is virtually impossible for pests and pathogens to become resistant to this type of control.
What are the main research objectives of the project?
For the practical application of the new crop protection concept, a number of questions still need to be answered and production and application processes must be optimized:
The production of the dsRNA as a plant protection agent must be cost-effective - ideally in the range of production costs for chemical plant protection agents. BioProtect will therefore test and further develop an already advanced scalable process for dsRNA production in bacteria using components derived from a bacterial virus.
For the concept to be successful, it is important that when the plants are sprayed, the dsRNA molecules are effectively absorbed into the target tissues of plants or pests and can act promptly when the plant is attacked by pathogens and pests. To this end, "carrier formulations" are being tested, i.e., additives in the spray that facilitate the uptake of the dsRNA.
For sustainable crop protection, it is essential that the active substances only control the desired pathogens or pests and not so-called "non-target organisms" such as beneficial insects or microorganisms. BioProtect will therefore also investigate this aspect.
Farmers must be able to use the new crop protection product successfully under different application conditions - this includes different weather conditions (rain, humidity, different temperatures). The new crop protection concept will be tested at different temperatures to determine its applicability under conditions of expected temperature increases due to climate change.