“Insect Allies” Enlisted to Protect Maize Crops from Pests

Researchers at UC Davis, the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell University, the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University have received a four-year, $10.3 million “Insect Allies” award from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to engineer viruses carried by insects  that can help in combatting disease, drought, and other yield-reducing stresses in maize.

Corn leaf aphids feeding on maize. The VIPER “Insect Allies” project funded by DARPA will study using viruses carried by such insects to make mature maize plants resistant to pests. Photo by Meena Haribal.

The goal of the VIPER (Viruses and Insects as Plant Enhancement Resources) project is to use viruses carried by insects such as aphids and leafhoppers, to change gene expression in mature maize plants.

Maize is the most economically important crop in the U.S. but can be negatively impacted by insect pests, drought, and other environmental stresses. About 30 percent of maize productivity world-wide is lost to pests and pathogens, and drought can lead to complete crop failure.

Although classical breeding is commonly used to improve maize, the process is slow and breeders often are unable to respond quickly enough to new threats. Other responses including the use of chemical pesticides and irrigation can be expensive, inefficient, or cause environmental damage.

Transient Changes in Mature Plants

Together, the VIPER team will engineer viruses that activate desirable traits in mature maize plants, insects that efficiently transmit these viruses, and mechanisms to prevent the unwanted spread of the viruses and insects to non-target plants. The project brings together seven scientists with diverse areas of expertise. Bryce Falk (UC Davis), W. Allen Miller (Iowa State University), and Steve Whitham (Iowa State University) will investigate different types of plant viruses; S.P. Dinesh-Kumar (UC Davis) and Dan Voytas (University of Minnesota) are leaders in the field of site-directed mutagenesis and plant genome engineering; and Clare Casteel (UC Davis) and Georg Jander (BTI) are experts in studying plant-insect interactions. Jander is also the project leader.

Although the ultimate goal is to develop viruses that can be used to transiently modify mature maize plants in agricultural fields, it is important to note that VIPER is focused on solving fundamental scientific questions of feasibility and all of the current work will be done in greenhouses and growth chambers. No genetically engineered viruses, insects, or plants will be released into the environment as part of this study.

“The biggest impact of the VIPER project will be the development of a toolkit to rapidly counter sporadic and emerging threats to this valuable crop,” said Jander. The methods developed by the VIPER team also will be useful for basic and applied maize research, and eventually may be deployed in a similar manner for other important crop plants.

Adapted from a news release published by the Boyce Thompson Institute. 

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