A Safer Insecticide

A new pesticide specifically targeting the Colorado potato beetle has proven effective, killing the pest while leaving other species unharmed, including its close relatives. This beetle, originating from the Rocky Mountains, causes over $500 million in annual damage across the Northern Hemisphere.

GreenLight Biosciences has developed Calantha, a spray that uses RNA interference technology to target the PSMB5 gene, which is essential for removing damaged proteins in cells. Blocking this gene causes protein buildup, killing the larvae within six days. The beetle, which also harms eggplant, tomatoes, and bell peppers, has developed resistance to 50 pesticide formulas.

Similar to bacteria developing antibiotic resistance, crop pests have become immune to many pesticides, necessitating ongoing innovation. In 2001, farmers in Maine found that neonicotinoids were no longer effective against the potato beetle. Andrei Alyokhin, an entomologist at the University of Maine, observed that the beetles were unaffected by treated plants.

RNA interference is praised for its precision and safety, targeting only the potato beetle’s genetic relatives and sparing beneficial insects like pollinators. Subba Reddy Palli, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky, highlighted its precision and effectiveness.

Calantha, produced at about $1 per gram, was approved by the FDA after proving harmless to non-target species. GreenLight conducted safety trials comparing PSMB5 in the potato beetle with other insects, finding that only two other agricultural pest species were affected.

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