Vélez is a Leader in Genetic Technology to Contain Corn Rootworm

Ana Vélez looks through container of insects to camera in lab
Ana Vélez, associate professor of entomology, directs multiple projects in her lab, researching new genetic tools to help combat the western corn rootworm, one of the world's most devastating crop pests. (Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communication and Marketing)

Vélez is a Leader in Genetic Technology to Contain Corn Rootworm

Husker scientist Ana Maria Vélez is pioneering a genetic technology to contain the western corn rootworm, which annually causes up to $2 billion in yield loss and control costs in the Corn Belt. The research seeks to contain agricultural pests by targeting rootworm genes.

This genetic technique, known as RNAi, increases rootworm larvae mortality to protect the corn plant.

Vélez, an associate professor in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Department of Entomology, explained the research area in a recent presentation at North Carolina State University and later online. She and coauthor Ken Narva with Greenlight Biosciences discussed their new paper, “RNA Interference in Agriculture: Methods, Applications and Governance,” addressing a wide range of dimensions in this area of science.

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology sponsored the recent events. The paper describes how RNAi functions, its current agriculture applications and the regulatory views of RNAi-based pesticides. It concludes with a discussion of current challenges for the commercial application of this technology in agriculture.

Vélez and Narva’s analysis provides a resource for regulatory agencies, policymakers and lawmakers, private and public institutions, and the public.

The gathering at North Carolina State provided the latest in a series of presentations Vélez has been invited to make at U.S. and international conferences.

Vélez and graduate students in her lab are advancing the knowledge in multiple ways. The researchers focus on small interfering RNA molecules derived from applied double-stranded RNA molecules. The interfering RNA molecules bind to targeted rootworm genes and prevent them from producing proteins that enable particular physiological functions.

Researchers are developing RNAi science to engineer crops for insect resistance traits or as a sprayable bioinsecticide for use in integrated pest management programs. Another research area is development of oral RNAi to control mosquitoes transmitting pathogens.

Through her Husker lab, Vélez “is doing cutting-edge work looking at manipulating the gene expression of pest insects to control those insects,” said John Ruberson, professor and head of the Department of Entomology. “Her work has focused on how interference with RNA in insect cells can disrupt the cellular mechanisms and suppress the pests.”

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