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Connecticut scientists get super microscopic to deal with plant viruses

Dwight Sipler
Wikimedia Commons

Over $600,000 in federal funding will help the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station develop ways to prevent diseases that kill plants using nanotechnology.

Plant viruses destroy over $30 billion in global crops a year. This has a big impact on American farmers producing food here and abroad. The federal funding comes from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Plant virus nanotech explainer graphic (1).jpg
Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
A diagram of the process developed, "which will induce RNA interference (RNAi), a cascade of natural enzymatic reactions in the plants that result in viral infection suppression."

Instead of using GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, scientists are using plant RNA molecules — naturally occurring genetic molecules that can help activate a plant's defense mechanism to defeat a virus. This approach is different from changing a plant using genetically engineered techniques.

“We produce RNA in our body — RNA is in the air,” said Washington DaSilva, a state virologist. “Those are very transient molecules, meaning they really break down very easily and that’s why we’re trying to find a last carrier, because we apply those things to the plant, quickly they are absorbed and they are incubated by the plant, so it’s a natural molecule. It’s not GMO at all. It's far from that.”

DaSilva said they need to find a way to introduce these molecules into plants that allows them to remain stable so they can do their job. He said the goal is to develop antiviral therapeutics to combat plant diseases globally.

“Like in Africa, the cassava virus is huge and this technology can be applied to that," he said. "And cassava is a staple food in Africa. Roughly 7% of the cassava production can be taken away just due to virus disease alone. So this has a huge potential to save people’s lives."

An award-winning freelance reporter/host for WSHU, Brian lives in southeastern Connecticut and covers stories for WSHU across the Eastern side of the state.