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Gene-disabling pesticides raise fears of unintended effects

By Andrew Pollack

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:20 a.m. HST, Jan 28, 2014



Scientists and biotechnology companies are developing what could become the next powerful weapon in the war on pests -- one that harnesses a Nobel Prize-winning discovery to kill insects and pathogens by disabling their genes.

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."

But some specialists fear that releasing gene-silencing agents into fields could harm beneficial insects, especially among organisms that have a common genetic makeup, and possibly even human health. The controversy echoes the larger debate over genetic modification of crops that has been raging for years. The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides, will hold a meeting of scientific advisers on Tuesday to discuss the potential risks of RNA interference.

"To attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more na?ve than our use of DDT in the 1950s," the National Honey Bee Advisory Board said in comments submitted to the EPA before the meeting, at the agency's conference center in Arlington, Va.

RNA interference is of interest to beekeepers because one possible use, under development by Montsanto, is to kill a mite that is believed to be at least partly responsible for the mass die-offs of honeybees in recent years.

Monsanto has applied for regulatory approval of corn that is genetically engineered to use RNAi, as the approach is called for short, to kill the western corn rootworm. And it is trying to develop a spray that would restore the ability of its Roundup herbicide to kill weeds that have grown impervious to it.

Some bee specialists submitted comments saying they would welcome attempts to use RNAi to save honeybees. Groups representing corn, soybean and cotton farmers also support the technology.

"Commercial RNAi technology brings U.S. agriculture into an entirely new generation of tools holding great promise," the National Corn Growers Association said.

Some scientists are calling for caution, however, In a paper published last year, two entomologists at the Department of Agriculture warned that because genes are common to various organisms, RNAi pesticides might hurt unintended insects.

In a paper prepared for Tuesday's meeting, EPA scientists said RNAi presented "unique challenges for ecological risk assessment that have not yet been encountered in assessments for traditional chemical pesticides."






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