Australian scientists develop environmentally sustainable pesticide

Grace Entry - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Groundbreaking research conducted by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) has led to the development of a special clay-based spray that could be an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticide.


Known as BioClay, initial trials conducted on a variety of crops such as tobacco, cowpeas and capsicums have shown that the spray protected these crops from invading diseases for almost a month.


“BioClay is a beautiful combination of biology and nanotechnology. It is a control measure which is environmentally sustainable, ecologically safe, stable, and easy to be adopted by farmers to protect their crop from diseases,” research leader Professor Mitter told ABC Rural.


BioClay works by containing double-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules, which can switch off gene expression, effectively preventing plants from being attacked by a virus. The clay helps these RNA molecules stick to the plant and then naturally degrades over time.


While gene silencing is not a new concept in genetic modification, Professor Mitter was clear to point out that rather than altering the genome of a plant, the BioClay process collects RNA from a virus then makes the virus turn against itself, leaving the plant whole.


“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,” Professor Mitter explained. 


BioClay meets growing consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce and Professor Mitter believes the cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry.


“If you use a chemical, pathogens are clever and can adapt, but with BioClay we use RNA from the pathogen to kill the pathogen itself, so we are strongly placed in terms of addressing the issue of pesticide resistance,” said Professor Mitter.


AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu held a similar opinion, stating, “It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wilder field of primary agricultural production.”


The research by QAAFI and AIBN is the first in the world to produce long-lasting results, and is to be published (in Nature Plants) – an international feat, as chemical companies around the world, such as Monsanto, have been looking to develop and commercialise similar processes and technology.


“There is a lot of work going on in using gene silencing in a spray, but I think we are fairly progressed in our own BioClay product,” Professor Mitter said. She hopes to have a commercial and affordable version of the spray available on shelves within the next three years.


The research project was supported by a Queensland Government Accelerate Partnership grant and a partnership with Nufarm Limited.

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