Fusarium graminearum causes millions of dollars in crop losses each year in Canada and is steadily spreading westward.
Two University of Lethbridge students are working on a plan to solve the problem, and their ideas have earned them a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston.
Graeme Glaister, a fourth-year neuroscience student, and Rhys Hakstol, a first-year biochemistry master’s student, have found a way to use RNA to knock out the gene or genes in the fusarium fungus that make it such a problem.
“Rather than using a particular small molecule pesticide, we had a look at pathways within the cell and chose one known as RNA interference,” said Hakstol.
“That’s one that will take up double stranded RNA and specifically silence a genetic region corresponding to the sequence of that RNA molecule.”
Silencing a specific genetic sequence solves the problems associated with other fusarium control methods such as development of resistance or bioaccumulation of fungicide in the soil.
The RNA is applied in a spray and does its work in the plant, but it degrades quickly in soil, sun and water.
“Since its specific to their genetic information, if another organism takes it up, there shouldn’t be any kind of negative effect,” said Glaister.
The same general technique has been used to kill crop pests, but that involved genetically modifying plant species.
“We chose to do this more topically,” Hakstol said.
“One, because it’s easier, and two, because we wouldn’t have to … navigate the genetically modified organism world.”
Added Glaister: “There’s kind of a negative aspect of engineering a plant. This allows us, if there’s an evolution, say the organism changes some of its genetic information or evolves resistance, we can just switch the target readily and easily, without having to re-engineer the plant.”
The students are working with researchers at Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lethbridge, where they have access to fusarium-infected wheat for testing purposes.
They have also discussed their solution with farmers.
“They said, ‘if you guys can pull it off, that would be amazing but if you guys can do it cheaper than pesticides, that’s incredible.’ That’s kind of the stuff that we’re faced with,” said Hakstol.
Glaister said they are working with Agriculture Canada while waiting for word on grant money. He anticipates it will take six months to a year to optimize their method of production.
Hans-Joachim Wieden, a professor, chemistry and biochemistry researcher and iGEM team supervisor, said the team’s recent win helps put Lethbridge on the map. So have the previous nine iGEM teams the institution has fielded.
Hakstol said the Boston competition attracts 3,000 people from Oxford, Harvard, Yale, the Silicon Valley and companies with interests in synthetic biology.