Canola School: How RNAi could help manage flea beetles and sclerotinia

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

Advancements in RNA interference (RNAi) technology could soon unlock new tools for managing canola pests and pathogens, such as sclerotinia and flea beetles.

RNAi — ribonucleic acid interference — involves targeting specific RNA sequences in a disease or pest, rather than targeting entire proteins or enzymes, as is the case with current pesticides. It’s a process that occurs naturally in organisms’ defense responses, explains Chris Manchur, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada (CCC), in this Canola School episode.

Prior to joining the CCC last year, Manchur completed a master’s degree at the University of Manitoba looking at potential applications of RNAi in canola.

“Because the active ingredient is actually an RNA sequence, we can tailor it to any kind of organism. Every organism has its own set of sequences that are unique to it, so we can engineer them to target specific canola pests, such as flea beetles, or even sclerotinia,” he explains.

RNAi can be deployed through plant genetics or through a spray application. In both cases, the pest or pathogen has to ingest or take in the active ingredient.

Since it’s specific to a species or genetic sequence, RNAi offers precise pest control, reducing the effects on unintended targets, explains Manchur, noting it also breaks down quickly in soil or water.

“The big hurdles now are doing a lot of these field tests to make sure that these formulations actually work in real world settings. We need to find the right kinds of additional chemicals to make sure it sticks to the plants to make sure it gets into the insect or that pest. And then also the regulatory aspect. Being that it’s very environmentally friendly, that it degrades in the soil and water very rapidly, and is only toxic to the pest that we’re targeting, that should be pretty favourable in a regulatory sense,” he says.

One of the first real-world applications of RNAi is currently being rolled out in North America in new corn hybrids that contain a RNAi transgenic trait that targets rootworm. Manchur notes other companies are also looking at using it to protect bees from varroa mites.

As for canola, Manchur says he’s optimistic there will be RNAi tools available for growers to use in five to eight years. “That’s a difficult question….but I would say we keep on marching along with the research right now. And knowing that we have a lot of priorities for major pests, like flea beetles, I’d really like to see this advance more.”

Check out the full episode, below:

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