The defense of crops from new pathogens and parasites is one of the main challenges that the agriculture sector is currently facing. The economic damage caused by several emergencies linked to recently spread harmful organisms, such as the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa and Drosophila suzukii diptera, amounts to about one million euros per year.
Technical and scientific innovation have an important role in guaranteeing the environmental, economic and social sustainability of this field. Access to all technologies available, including biotechnologies, is fundamental to face new dangers and reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture.
Promising results come from new methods based on the gene silencing system by interfering RNA (RNAi), which is able to enhance the defense capabilities of plants to respond to the attack of pathogens. With the RNAi technique it is possible to modulate the expression of plant genes without requiring the expression of new molecules. The characteristics of mobility through the plant's vascular
system offer the possibility to transform rootstocks for woody plants for stable expression of RNAi, conferring resistance to scions producing non-GM fruits. RNA molecules can also be produced and applied as a topical treatment to plants to change their physiology or control on pests and pathogens. It is realistic to consider imminent the availability of dsRNA as a biopesticide applicable as foliar spray, seed tanning or directly in the soil.
The iPlanta project (https://iplanta.univpm.it/), organized within the framework of the European program Horizon2020 COST and coordinated by Prof. Bruno Mezzetti (Department of Agricultural Sciences of the Polytechnic University of Marche), aims to connect the main research groups active in RNAi technology in Europe and America, with international organizations such as EFSA, FAO and private companies. For Italy, the following research groups and institutes are involved: the Universities of Ancona, Bologna, Verona, and Rome “La Sapienza”, the research institutes CREA, CNR, ENEA, private companies and professional organizations.
According to prof. Mezzetti "to face the emergencies that characterize EU agriculture and in particular Italian agriculture it is fundamental to be able to apply all available technologies, including all biotechnologies, and to show the benefits to public opinion by activating experimentation in the field."
The aspects of environmental and health safety are assessed by the working group coordinated by Prof. Salvatore Arpaia of ENEA, who believes that “a strong point of the applications of RNAi can be a high specificity of action against harmful species, we are working already to evaluate the biosafety of these products for non-target organisms, and clearly for consumers first of all.”
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