Sounds like science fiction, Professor Heinlein!

Einstein showed that we’re stuck in this solar system.  Even a round trip to Mars with a human crew would be much harder than the Apollo missions, given the greater distance and need to escape from a stronger gravity well for the return trip.  But I’m still amazed by how much information I can access out in the middle of the woods, with my cell phone.  And, although biotechnology has promised more than it has delivered, I expect we’ll see some amazing contributions, eventually.

In agriculture, transgenic crops are widely grown, but mostly for herbicide resistance or insect resistance based on plants that express bacterial toxins.  Both benefits are being undermined by evolution.  Glyphosate-resistant weeds are now a significant problem and  I don’t think adding another herbicide to the mix will work for very long.

I see two possible solutions to the problem of weeds and pests evolving resistance to our control measures.  (In my book, I discuss evolution of resistance to nonchemical controls, including crop rotation.)  We can implement strategies to slow the evolution of resistance, like the high-dose/refuge strategy that has slowed the evolution of insect pests.  Or, we can design a system that generates new control methods quickly and cheaply as each previous method falls to evolution.

A recent paper by Niehl, Soinien, Poranen, and Heinlein may be a promising example of the latter approach.  The idea is to spray plants with double-stranded RNA whose sequence matches that in a plant virus, thereby triggering the plant’s RNA-interference system.  They showed that this worked to protect tobacco plants from the tobacco mosaic virus and cite papers that apparently show protection against fungi and insects using other dsRNAs.  (I don’t understand how those work, since I thought the target mRNA needed to be inside the plant’s own cells, as it is for viruses.)  Minor mutations in the virus wouldn’t necessarily confer resistance to this mechanism and developing a new version of the spray seems much simpler than developing a new herbicide, for example.

Thanks to Richard Conniff for alerting me to this paper, via an article he wrote for Yale Environment 360, which quotes me and Toby Kiers briefly.


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