It’s difficult to the general public to understand the boundaries between science and pseudoscience, and even for some scientists it’s difficult to distinguish the reality from what is made-up without a strict and thoughtful manner. But some of the most critical problems in our society requires critical solutions and sometimes we just don’t have the time to go into details. We just take the short way and, in this matter, people just accept something they have been told and move along without questioning it, arguing with others who have a different opinion.
In the field of agriculture, it’s no different… People with the urgency to produce and attend an increasing concerned population, usually take miraculous solutions with utterly disastrous consequences. Without checking their references, almost every person on Earth have an opinion on how our food must be produced! Some of the solutions have been very successful and others haven’t, but either way someone always want to be right and tell others off how their method is better. Social conflicts regarding the use of land exist since the dawn of civilization and there has been many people deceiving others in other to obtain and maintain power, while the scientific method is just ignored. Trofim Lysenko in the former Soviet Union was a biologist that neglected Medelian inheritance and, when he was given power, he was responsible for the persecution of many scientists who disagreed with him, the implementation of an agricultural system that didn’t work and the deaths of many people from starvation.
In my college years I’ve been involved in many different perspectives, I worked as a volunteer in social and environmental projects in which people praised for organic production, but also worked in a biotechnology lab and founded a Synthetic Biology Club. I tried to raise awareness of how much waste people were producing and saw that there are many different ways to produce food without harming the environment, but at the same time I realized that although people were aware of the many problems we are facing, sometimes they chose just to ignore it in other to keep their comfortable way of living. The argument that in the past everyone lived with organic production and didn’t have any problems also didn’t convinced me, there were many people that starved in the past and deforestation in some places occurred only because people needed to extract some resources out of nature such as wood as a source of energy. Organic production is hard and takes a lot of work that not a lot of people are eager to adopt, making it expensive in a way that is not accessible for a lot of people. In the other hand, the industrial agriculture that have been in practice since the Green Revolution from the last century isn’t working as well, with the depletion of natural resources and no effective solutions for the problems that are emerging. Pests are becoming more resistant to the pesticides, greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere, we are losing biodiversity and some of us are even becoming intoxicated.
But the future might be brighter! In my opinion the best way to produce food in a not so distant future is to unite forces between the organic ideology and technological advancements that doesn’t seem to cause any harm to humans or the environment, a “Technorganic Revolution”. Why can’t we make the GMO technology more accessible? Give people the power to produce better crops, with more productivity and nutrients, without they being dependent on only one company and one system, focusing the government on incentivizing them to plant a variety of native crops, breed their own varieties and preserve nature in general!
In the past eight months, I’ve worked for a startup called LOTAN Agrosciences in which they’re developing a new kind of topical pesticide based on RNA Interference (RNAi). The idea is that silencing specific genes people will have control over specific agricultural pests without harming other natural occurring organisms and the person applying the product in the fields. It’s a great idea of a project that is using a really advanced technological mechanism to come up with a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and less toxic product.
The interference RNA (RNAi) was discovered with double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) insertion experiments in eukaryotic organisms, that activated a defense system inside the cell involving Dicer enzyme that cuts this dsRNA into small fragments of interfering RNA (siRNA-small interfering RNA). Then, these fragments associate with the RISC (RNA-induced silencing complex) providing genetic information to degrade all messenger RNA (mRNA) that has a complementary sequence, silencing certain genes by preventing translation of RNA into protein.
This technology already has success stories in its development in the pharmaceutical industry and in transgenics, beginning to migrate now to the agricultural sector in the form of a topical defensive to be applied in the crop. As an advantage, it presents the possibility of fighting specific pests that have become resistant to conventional pesticides and have an emergency of being combated in the crops, without damage to the other organisms present in the ecosystem nor toxicity to the human beings, either who applies the product or the final food consumer.
With the difficulty encountered nowadays in developing new organic molecules to be used as chemical pesticides, the regulation of pesticides that have high toxicity and are already banned in several countries, as well as other factors that lead society to seek more sustainable forms of food production regarding that the need to control pests continues to be a challenge for the producer, the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been developed. It`s necessary to use diversified strategies so that there is no selection of resistant pests, an outcome from intensive use of just one method of pest control. Based on the success found in the production of biological control methods, showing that there is an opening in the market for the insertion of new technologies, it is expected that RNAi can be used as a new product to combat crop pests.
In LOTAN Agrosciences, scientists have been trying to fight some well-known agricultural pests and diseases using this technology and we’ve already had some promising results! On the laboratory bench, they were able to control the growth of some fungi and they had high mortality rates with some insect pests. The biggest challenges which are being faced right now are scaling-up this molecule production and the formulation it needs to endure the environmental conditions of the open field, such as UV radiation.
LOTAN is partnering with big players in the market to help them with these technical difficulties and at the same time they are also helping others to develop their technologies. The idea is to focus their energy in doing what they know best, that is Science! With an analytical view, designing and planning experiments, they are focusing on finding the targets for gene silencing, designing the molecules and testing them for their effectiveness. The LOTAN Pest Silencing Platform™ (LPSP™) is a platform designed to discover new active ingredients (AIs) based in the RNAi technology for pest control. The LPSP™ platform comprises all the stages needed for new RNAi based Active Ingredients (AIs) development, from the pest transcriptome sequencing and AIs design to in vitro and greenhouse AIs effectiveness assays.
Once the technology for cheap RNAi production and formulation is well-known, there will be endless possibilities for gene targeting in pest control! The same way a RNAi molecule is produced and formulated for one specific species, it could be produced for other pests, diseases and even competitive weeds, it would only need to change its nucleotide sequence to match the genes of the target.
Right now, LOTAN is developing molecules against Fusarium, White Mold, Gray Mold, Whitefly and the Fall Armyworm, which are causing many losses in agriculture worldwide. It is expected to find market trends for the implementation of this new technology of RNAi as a new class of agricultural defensive that can be used to fight specific pests in precision agriculture. This technology could even be used to enhance some plant qualities by silencing genes within the crops that prevent them to express some characteristics. Combining this technology with other Integrated Pest Management (IPM) solutions could bring humanity to a more sustainable and technological future!
André Tomas Vilela Hermann, Brazil