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Nebraska scientist innovates corn rootworm defense

Nebraska scientist innovates corn rootworm defense

By Scout Nelson

At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Entomology, Associate Professor Ana Maria Vélez is leading innovative research to combat the western corn rootworm, an agricultural pest causing significant economic damage annually.

Her focus is on a genetic approach called RNA interference (RNAi), which increases larvae mortality and protects corn crops.

Vélez recently detailed her work in a presentation at North Carolina State University and online, discussing the paper "RNA Interference in Agriculture: Methods, Applications and Governance" coauthored with Ken Narva from Greenlight Biosciences.

This paper explores the functionality, applications, and regulatory perspectives of RNAi-based pesticides, culminating in a discussion on the challenges of commercializing this technology in agriculture.

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology sponsored these events, highlighting the importance of RNAi in modern agricultural practices.

“They have evolved resistance in different locations to different kinds of pesticides, to Bt's and even to crop rotation,” Vélez noted about the rootworms. She emphasized the need for a multipronged approach to pest control, integrating RNAi with other methods.

Vélez's laboratory is a hub for this cutting-edge research, where she and her team, including graduate students and Professor Emeritus Lance Meinke, focus on identifying rootworm genes essential for their survival and development. One key project aims to pinpoint the gene that directs larvae to corn roots, initiating their destructive path.

“She is doing cutting-edge work looking at manipulating the gene expression of pest insects to control those insects,” stated John Ruberson, head of the Department of Entomology at Nebraska.

Vélez is recognized globally for her expertise in RNAi technology. Her outreach extends beyond the laboratory to international conferences and symposia, including her annual organization of the RNAi symposium for the Entomology Society of America since 2017.

The combination of RNAi technology and traditional methods like Bt proteins in products such as SmartStax PRO represents the latest advancement in crop protection, now increasingly used by U.S. farmers. As Vélez highlighted, the adaptive nature of the rootworm underscores the ongoing necessity to deepen our understanding and application of RNAi science to ensure its long-term efficacy.

Photo Credit -gettyimages-dszc

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Categories: Nebraska, Crops, Corn

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