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Scientists have found a way to use a trick of nature to increase crop yields, combat hard-to-kill pests, grow coffee beans with no caffeine and even save the honeybee.
The technology also could help farmers sidestep some of the issues that have fueled opposition to the genetically engineered foods that are now on the market. Critics, however, fear that biotech giants such as Monsanto Co. are rushing the technology to market before some potential side effects are fully understood.
Federal regulators are now assessing the safety of one application of the technology. It would make way for a new generation of pesticides that could, for example, kill agricultural pests with supposed pinpoint accuracy, sparing harmless insects.
“It’s very exciting and offers potential in a lot of ways,” says Bryce Falk, a University of California-Davis scientist who is trying to use the technology to stop the spread of a disease that is devastating U.S. orange groves.
The new technology, called RNAi for short, allows scientists to switch off key genes in plant and animal cells in a way that nature already does. Human cells use RNA molecules, for example, to destroy viruses. The discovery of the process earned two American scientists the Nobel Prize in 2006.
The RNA molecules can be engineered into the plant or animal or applied from the outside via a spray, for example. RNA interference has already been used by plant scientists to tweak soybeans to produce more healthful oils and to engineer virus-resistant food crops. Other future applications include producing coffee beans that are naturally decaffeinated.
Biotech giant Monsanto is employing RNAi to develop new pesticides, including a treatment designed to reverse declines in honeybee populations by using RNAi to control a virus that mites carry into hives. Department of Agriculture scientists have been conducting similar research.
Bees are critical to pollinating a variety of crops, so success in combatting the virus could be a huge public relations coup for the biotech industry, which has struggled to convince critics of the public benefits of genetic engineering.
Monsanto also is using the RNA technology to develop virus-resistant vegetables and to address problems that have resulted from the widespread use of genetically engineered crops.
The molecules also are being engineered into corn to help combat the rootworm larvae, some of which have developed resistance to a toxin in genetically engineered corn varieties now available to farmers.
Knowing products like this could be headed to market, the Environmental Protection Agency has scheduled an Oct. 29 meeting of a scientific advisory panel to review the possible health and environmental risks that the agency should address when companies such as Monsanto apply for approval to commercialize the RNA products.