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What excites a leading biotech researcher?

Readers who have passed the four-decade mark (and older) will enjoy the phenomenon I'm experiencing these days: The ability to sit down with sources I've interviewed for several years and with whom I've been able to become familiar. Robb Fraley, chief technology officer, Monsanto, is one of those sources. From early press conferences where I was green to biotech coverage, to today I'm sure he and I have talked dozens of times.

During the Farm Progress Show this year we spent some quality time talking about a range of topics, but one came up that I could see was visibly interesting to him - Monsanto's new approach to controlling corn rootworm. You see, the gene Monsanto is working with this time around doesn't express a pesticidal protein, instead it turns off a process in the rootworm.

"It's a totally new mode of action," Fraley says. "Our corn rootworm 3 gene takes an RNAi approach"

RNAi? The little i stands for "interference" and it's a technology that has not been applied to agriculture before, but I expect we'll be hearing more about it. Essentially the protein in this new package will shut off a key RNA sequence in the rootworm, and it dies.

For Fraley, who is being honored with a World Food Prize next month, new ideas for genetics aren't a surprise, he pioneered techniques to insert new genes into plants and led the team that developed glyphosate-tolerant crops. Say what you will about glyphosate-resistance, the ability to use Roundup as the sole weed killer (initially) to clear up land has been a boon to agriculture and made a lot of farmers plenty of money.

Yet this RNAi tech has Fraley rethinking his molecular biology background. "This is a phenomenal discovery," he says. He notes that in his early days in molecular biology the thought process was that DNA made RNA which produced a protein. Today, the RNAi concept is gaining ground in new ways - so the DNA makes a specific RNA-interference molecule that triggers a specific effect in a pest, disease or elsewhere. It's exciting stuff.

For Monsanto, they had to characterize the rootworm to find a common gene for the rootworm alone that would be stopped by this interference. It's highly technical, but superbly precise in its application. But that's the nature of biotechnology from the start. It's a much more precise science than in the past and one that has changed the way we farm. RNAi has longer term potential in other ways too.

The RNAi approach, while in a plant for the corn rootworm 3 gene Monsanto is testing, could be used in spray applications or in other ways in the future, Fraley explains. It could be used to turn on or turn off key traits or actions in a plant to specifically modify production. We're talking a decade or more in the future, but this new approach to genetic fine-tuning in plants offers significant promise.

We'll keep you posted on corn rootworm 3 as it gets closer to market - later this decade. It looks like it'll be part of an enhanced SmartStax package in corn that will offer three different below-ground pest control modes of action to keep resistance in check.

In fact, Fraley says he's as excited about this new RNAi tech "as I was about Roundup Ready technology in the 1990s." And that's saying something.

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