RNAi: From Medicine to Agriculture

At BIO, our member companies are involved in the research and development of innovative healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products. They are working everyday to improve the human condition by curing the sick, feeding the hungry, and developing cleaner, safer and healthier sources of energy. And they are accomplishing this by using innovative biotechnology tools, such as RNA interference, or RNAi, in both basic research and product development. RNAi is a biological process, occurring in essentially all organisms from yeast to mammals, in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression, typically by causing the destruction of specific messenger RNA, or mRNA, molecules.  The discovery of this process in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, which is a nematode or roundworm, earned two American scientists the Nobel Prize in 2006.

RNAi has been used to create new molecular approaches to curing diseases by working at the level of individual genes. The DNA in our cells contains the information to make RNA, which in turn contains the information to produce proteins. Because abnormal protein production causes many human diseases, drugs are typically used to decrease their further production. But today, the molecular mechanism to treat these diseases goes well beyond interfering with protein production to actually silencing the genes that encode abnormal proteins with RNAi.

The use of RNAi in agriculture is also gaining momentum, having been used to develop soybeans that produce healthier oils and virus-resistant crops. The RNAi process can also be used as a form biological control in crop production.  RNAi can be used to precisely target and control specific insect crop pests, thereby protecting crops while not harming beneficial insects. On the other hand RNAi can also provide broad-spectrum resistance against pathogens with high degree of genetic variability, like viruses. One example is work being done at several universities, where scientists are using RNAi to treat viruses that affect bees. Additionally, recent studies have indicated that RNAi-related processes might have a role in plant stress adaptation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already developed a virus-resistant plum tree and has a number of different RNAi-related research projects underway.

Innovation is agriculture is critical to meeting the food, clothing and energy needs of a growing population. RNAi is simply another tool in the biotech toolkit, along with genetic engineering and marker-assisted breeding that can be used to develop novel and sustainable methods to improve crop quality and increase productivity.

 

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