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Many pesticides have an inherent weakness: The active ingredients don't adhere well to the plants they protect. After the chemicals are sprayed onto crops, rain can wash them off into the soil and groundwater. Farmers must spray again and hope for dry weather.
Now, researchers have devised a stickier approach to protecting plants, one that could be applied less frequently than chemical pesticides and might be less toxic. They have designed a molecule with two separate chains of amino acids, called peptides. One peptide embeds itself in the waxy surface of a leaf, holding tight in the rain; the other juts out like a spear to attack microbial pests. In a proof of concept published this month in Green Chemistry, lab tests showed the molecules lessened symptoms of soybean rust, a dreaded fungus that causes one of the world's worst agricultural diseases.
Peptides - Challenges - Market - Plant - Pathologists
The peptides will face many challenges before they can reach the market. But plant pathologists say they could be a flexible new way to protect crops. "With the current scale of the soybean rust problem, and the rapid evolution of resistance against multiple fungicides, any addition to the toolbox would be welcome," says Nichola Hawkins at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, U.K. Ralph Hückelhoven at the Technical University of Munich in Germany also considers the technique promising. "It opens a treasure box of solutions," he says. "It's a bit surprising that no one has done this before."
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To make the new pesticide, plant pathologist Uwe Conrath and protein engineer Ulrich Schwaneberg of RWTH Aachen University in Germany teamed up. Schwaneberg specializes in the directed evolution of peptides—adding genes to microbes to produce them, for example, and relying on rounds of mutation and selection to develop strains that produce...
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