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September 29, 2016

EPA Assembles Scientists to Study New Monsanto Pesticide

  • Agency
  • Genetics/Genomics

Bloomberg BNA BioTech Watch - A Monsanto bug killer that could usher in a new generation of pesticide technology is being studied by a group of scientists the Environmental Protection Agency assembled.

Unlike most other pesticides, this chemical acts on the genetic level by blocking the full expression of an insect pest's genes. Because it is tailored specifically to the genetic code of a particular insect species, the pesticide holds the promise of dramatically reducing the collateral damage most other pesticides inflict on beneficial insects, such as bees and other pollinators.

This technology is under tight scrutiny from the EPA, which is concerned that manipulating the genetic code of insects could have unintended consequences on the environment and human health. It has convened a panel of independent scientists at its Arlington, Va., offices this week to review the agency's assessments of the risks this pesticide poses.

“On a conceptual level, [this] is really different from everything else,” said University of Kentucky entomologist Xuguo Zhou, a member of the panel.

RNA Interference

The pesticide, which is going by the technical name DvSnf7, works by blocking an insect's RNA, the messenger molecules that DNA uses to tell cells which proteins to create. The technology is called RNA Interference, or RNAi.

RNAi technology has been made possible due to huge advances in genetic engineering during the past decade that have allowed scientists to make hyper-precise edits to the genetic codes of plants and animals.

Monsanto said chemicals that block RNA are widespread in nature and have been for millennia. DvSnf7 is simply an attempt to take this naturally occurring phenomenon and tailor it so that it can be used against agricultural pests, the company said.

Furthermore, mammals have multiple redundant filtering systems to remove RNA-blocking molecules from their bodies, according to Jay Petrick, a toxicologist at Monsanto. RNAi is effective only on certain invertebrates that lack these filters, he said.

“We've been eating [RNA-blocking substances] in our diet for as long as we've been eating,” Petrick told the scientific panel.

GMO Corn

Monsanto is seeking approval for a strain of corn that has been genetically modified to internally produce DvSnf7, as well as several other substances that also are toxic to insects. It is marketing this corn under the brand name SmartStax PRO and said it expects to bring the corn to market by the end of this decade.

The EPA has completed draft assessments of both the environmental and human health risks of the insecticide. After the panel wraps up its two-day hearing this week, its scientists will have 90 days to make final, nonbinding recommendations to the agency. These recommendations could determine whether the draft assessments are ready to be made final or whether they need more work.

In addition to securing EPA approval for DvSnf7 and the other bug-killing substances produced by the corn, Monsanto also will have to acquire approval for the SmartStax PRO corn itself from the Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over the planting of GMO crops.