As weeds continue to develop herbicide-resistance, it is becoming increasingly important to find alternatives to combat these pests. In a new study, a team of researchers from UCLA Samueli and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry have discovered a potentially very useful product in a fungal genome. This could lead to the first new class of commercial herbicide in over 30 years.
In natural environments, competition for space is fierce. In the soil, microbes produce and use specific chemicals to kill plants in the competition of space for growth. However, the microbes also need to protect themselves from these deadly chemicals. The team of researchers used a technique known as ‘resistance gene-directed genome mining’, essentially targeting the genes that make the microbe resistant to the killer chemical. It can then be considered likely that the organism will have the genetic code to produce the killer chemical.
The new fungus-derived herbicide inhibits an enzyme that is essential for the plant’s survival, a mechanism fundamentally different from existing herbicides. The team tested its usefulness by spraying a plant, Arabidopsis, in the lab. The product was observed to kill plants that were sprayed with it. Alongside this, the team embedded the resistance gene into the Arabidopsis genome and found that they became immune to the herbicide.
An herbicide of this type would therefore have the added value that crops could be modified to be resistant to the herbicide, allowing unwanted plants, i.e. weeds, to be targeted specifically in an agricultural operation. The study’s authors are looking for potential agrochemical partners to aid in commercialising the product and furthering research and regulatory approval.
The studies two co-principal investigators, Steven Jacobsen and Yi Tang, have offered their comments on how the principle can be applied to other areas in human health and agriculture as well as the herbicides potential usefulness as a commercial product.
The study has been published in Nature and was authored a UCLA chemical engineering graduate student, Yan Yan, in collaboration with various other individuals from UCLA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.