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Spray and wipe: Qld breakthrough may rid world of destructive pest


Queensland researchers have applied RNA technology, integral in the development of Covid vaccines, to the global war against one of the world’s most damaging agricultural pests.

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The environmentally friendly treatment is part of the University of Queensland’s ‘BioClay’ technology, hailed as a safe and sustainable alternative to chemical pesticides.

Research team leader Professor Neena Mitter said the breakthrough find was a game-changer for crop protection because it was effective against whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), a small insect responsible for the loss of billions of dollars in agricultural crops around the world.

“Silverleaf whitefly (SLW) is considered an invasive species in the United States, Australia, Africa and several European countries and attacks more than 500 plant species including cotton, pulses, chilli, capsicum, and many other vegetable crops,” Mitter said.

“The insect lays eggs on the underside of the leaves and the nymphs and adults suck the sap from the plant resulting in reduced yields.”

In addition, whiteflies also transmit many viruses which pose a threat to healthy crops.

Control of the pest has been difficult due to its ability to quickly develop resistance to traditional chemical pesticides.

The BioClay spray uses degradable clay particles that carry double-stranded RNA which enters the plant and protects it without altering the plant’s genome.

“It is the first time the BioClay platform has been used to target sap sucking insect pests,” Mitter said.

“When whiteflies try to feed on the sap, they also ingest the dsRNA, which kills the insect by targeting genes essential to its survival.

“The world of RNA is not just responsible for COVID-19 vaccines, it will also revolutionise the agricultural industry by protecting plants from viruses, fungi and insect pests.”

The researchers will now work with industry partner Nufarm Limited to test the whitefly BioClay formulation in real-world production systems.

The BioClay technology was developed over the past decade by Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).





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