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RNAi on the Farm

Some scientists are hopeful that RNA interference could be used as an alternative to chemicals to control pests that affect agriculturally important organisms like honeybees or crops like corn, the New York Times reports.

“If you use a neuro-poison, it kills everything,” Subba Reddy Palli, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky, says. “But this one is very target-specific.”

In particular, companies like Monsanto are hopeful that RNAi could be used to kill a mite that infects honeybees, target the western corn rootworm that affects corn, and make weeds with resistance to the company's Roundup spray susceptible to it again. The Times notes that Monsanto's effort to develop corn engineered to produce double-stranded RNA targeting the rootworm-essential gene Snf7 is the first in which a crop has been developed to produce RNAi.

Critics, though, argue that RNAi may have unintended side effects on other insects, especially closely related ones that may share genes. The US Environmental Protection Agency is holding a meeting to discuss potential risks of RNAi as a pesticide.

“To attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more naive than our use of DDT in the 1950s,” the National Honey Bee Advisory Board said in comments submitted to the EPA before the meeting, according to the New York Times.