A game-changing spray to revolutionize pest control globally

An eco-friendly spray that targets and kills one of the world’s most damaging agricultural pests has been created by scientists at the University of Queensland, with support from the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC).

This breakthrough is part of UQ’s BioClay™ technology, a safe and sustainable alternative to chemical pesticides, which has been developed over the past decade by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).

Professor Neena Mitter, leader of the research team, said it was a game-changer for crop protection because it was effective against the whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), a small insect responsible for the loss of billions of dollars in agricultural crops in the world.

“The silvery whitefly (SLW) is considered an invasive species in the United States, Australia, Africa and several European countries and attacks more than 500 plant species, including cotton, legumes, pepper, capsicum and many other vegetable crops,” Prof Mitter said.

“The insect lays eggs on the underside of leaves and the nymphs and adults suck sap from the plant, reducing yields.”

In addition, whiteflies also transmit many viruses that threaten crop health.

Controlling the pest has been difficult due to its ability to quickly develop resistance to traditional chemical pesticides.

BioClay spray uses degradable clay particles that carry double-stranded RNA that enters and protects the plant without altering the plant’s genome.

“This is the first time the BioClay platform has been used to target sap-sucking insect pests,” Prof Mitter said.

“When the whiteflies try to feed on the sap, they also ingest dsRNA, which kills the insect by targeting genes essential for its survival.

“The RNA world is not only responsible for COVID-19 vaccines, it will also revolutionize the agricultural industry by protecting plants against harmful viruses, fungi and insects,” she said.

To identify suitable genetic targets, PhD candidate Ritesh Jain scoured the global genome sequence database.

“Initially, we had to screen hundreds of SLW-specific genes to see which ones would affect their growth,” Jain said.

“Importantly, dsRNA was shown to be harmless when given to other insects, such as bees and stingless aphids.”

CRDC’s senior R&D manager, Susan Maas, says SLW is a major cotton pest worldwide because of its ability to contaminate and degrade lint quality.

“This innovation will help the industry maintain Australia’s reputation as a producer of high quality, uncontaminated cotton in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” said Ms Maas.

Hort Innovation’s director of research and development, Dr Vino Rajandran, said the spray could give the industry another tool in its biosafety arsenal.

“It has the potential to save growers time and money and is a great example of industry levy investment,” said Dr Rajandran.

The researchers will now work with industry partner Nufarm Ltd to test the BioClay whitefly formulation in real production systems.

Mike Pointon, global head of transformation projects at Nufarm, said the company was “proud to partner with these world-renowned scientists to develop cutting-edge technologies that provide new, alternative control options for farmers.”

The research is published in Nature Plants.

The work was supported by a Horticulture Innovation Australia grant, along with CRDC and Nufarm Ltd.

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