A team of University of Lethbridge students has developed a potentially game-changing product that could wipe out a widespread problem for cereal growers — fusarium graminearum.
“It’s a really pertinent local issue, but it’s also a global issue, so it expands the potential impact (of our project,)” said Graeme Glaister, a fourth-year neuroscience student at the University of Lethbridge.
The students presented their findings at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, Mass. in November, where they took home a gold medal for their work.
“It’s a really, really unique opportunity that made me a lot more interested in research than I was before,” said Glaister. “Normally in classes, you learn about theoretical stuff, but you don’t get that ability to touch it and play with it and work with it like you do with iGEM.
“Applying it and looking at how it works in the real world isn’t something you get exposed to normally in your undergrad.”
Using double-stranded RNA, the team targeted the specific gene responsible for fusarium production in a cell and “knocked it down,” killing the organism.
“The big benefit of something like that over traditional pesticides is that you’re targeting a specific (gene), so you don’t have off-target effects where it gets into every cell and affects different organisms differently, some more lethally than others,” said Glaister.
“It’s more species specific, and it’s also a little more environmentally friendly because it degrades within about 36 hours in the environment, so it won’t accumulate in higher levels.”
Another “really cool feature” of this RNA-based product is how quickly it can respond to any breakdown in resistance — a growing problem for traditional fungicides.
“Traditionally, if you want to design a new fungicide or other small molecule like that, you either start from the drawing board or modify the old molecule a little bit, so you have the problem of testing off-target effects,” said Glaister. “With ours, what we can do is switch where we’re targeting in the (gene) if any kind of resistance develops. If it evolves, it’s a very small thing to design a new target.”
Normally, the costs of developing a product using RNA are “prohibitive,” but the team was able to find a cheaper alternative, using E. coli.
“It’s really expensive to make chemically, so we designed a system where we could produce it in E. coli to significantly reduce that cost and make it realistic for market applications,” said Glaister.
“Once you have an E. coli cell that’s actually making what you want, you can take a small amount and add it to a culture, where it will make tons and tons more. It just gets cheaper and cheaper as you make it.”
After their early successes, the team is now working with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to see if its product will work in field trials.
“We’ve shown some really nice results on plates, and now we’re going to move into a plant model where we actually take infected wheat and spray our RNA on it,” said Glaister.
“We want to commercialize it eventually, but we also really want to test it out and then work on the optimization of getting the RNA for cheaper.”
The team also got to see first hand how its product might work for the people who are combating fusarium on their farms.
“We got to meet a lot of farmers and actually find out whether they would be willing to use something like this,” he said. “It was nice being able to interact with people who could potentially use your product.”
And as for Glaister, who didn’t grow up on a farm, his first foray into agriculture research may have opened the door to some new career options once he’s done school.
“I never really realized agriculture research was so interesting until I got to participate in this.”