Scientists have developed a new kind of pesticide that can disrupt the genetic sequences of its intended targets. The new method goes after the RNA of unwanted organisms, and could be used to target a mite “believed to be at least partly responsible for the mass die-offs of honeybees in recent years.” The NYT reports:
By zeroing in on a genetic sequence unique to one species, the technique has the potential to kill a pest without harming beneficial insects. That would be a big advance over chemical pesticides.
“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.”
Of course, stick the word genetic in some new technology and you’re bound to rile up some greens. But there’s tremendous potential here: It would give us a weapon to control pests with a weapon more along the lines of a sniper rifle rather than a bazooka.The concern here is the same for all pesticides: that the technique will kill unintended targets or organisms. The National Honeybee Advisory Group warned that “to attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more naive than our use of DDT in the 1950s.” No one wants another Silent Spring, and it’s obviously important to do all the requisite due diligence to make sure that this new genetic weapon does exactly what we mean it to do and nothing more.But that’s the most exciting part of all of this: These scientists have given us a very refined tool to add to our agricultural arsenal that could improve crop yields and help feed the world’s growing population. Genetic modifications have enormous potential—from growing healthier foods to keeping crops alive through drought to producing more discerning pesticides—and we’re really only scratching the surface.