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Biotech firms develop RNAi-based products for pest control

Companies tout low-cost production technologies and ability to target specific pests

by Melody Bomgardner
January 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 5

Leaves of a vegetable crop eaten by insects are shown.
Credit: Shutterstock
Biotech firms say RNAi-based pesticides can control crop insect damage better than chemical sprays.

Three biotech start-ups have plans to produce and manufacture products based on RNA interference that they say can control crop-munching insects better than chemical sprays. RNAi can interrupt a target organism’s ability to produce key proteins.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a not-for-profit research institute based in St. Louis, has spun out a start-up called RNAissance Ag to commercialize RNAi technology developed at the Center. TechAccel, a venture development company, provided early-stage financial and technical backing to RNAissance prior to the spin-off.

TechAccel is also an investor in GreenLight Biosciences, a Medford, Massachusetts-based biotech firm that raised $50 million in early January. GreenLight is not new—it was founded in 2008—but TechAccel and other investors say the firm’s work on its lower-cost RNAi production platform has opened up pest control markets in addition to the high-value human health care markets it now pursues.

TechAccel’s CEO Michael Helmstetter says RNAi pesticides can be delivered more effectively than chemical sprays, are less costly, and can reduce health risks to workers and the environment. “An RNAi insect control measure is highly specific to the target insect and is not toxic to other organisms,” Helmstetter adds.

Meanwhile, Renaissance BioScience, a yeast specialist based in Vancouver, has linked up with the University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba, and the Canadian research non-profit Mitacs in a three-year, $730,000 research and development project. The team will test the company’s yeast-based RNAi production and delivery platform in insect and animal models.


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