RNAi Technology

The committee held a Public Webinar on Thursday, May 7, 2015, to gather information about RNAi technology.

Click here to watch the full webinar.

What is RNAi?

RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural process that cells use to turn down, or silence, the activity of specific genes.

Inside every cell of every organism is DNA, the double helix that holds instructions for making the protein building blocks of life. RNA is a messenger that transports the instructions encoded in DNA to the protein factories of the cell.

When interfering RNA binds to a specific messenger RNA, no protein is produced because the interfering RNA can either block translation or target the messenger RNA for degradation. This process turns down or silences the expression of specific genes.

Why did the committee hear about RNAi?

Some researchers are investigating the possibility of using RNAi in agriculture for applications such as improving resistance to drought and pests or boosting the nutritional value of crops. Scientists can introduce interfering RNA via genetic-engineering techniques to trigger RNAi silencing within plants and regulate a specific gene of their choice. This has been used to develop slow-browning apples and potatoes and to reduce lignin in alfalfa.

The following slideshow provides a brief introduction to the topic.

Watch the RNAi Technology Webinar and hear what the speakers presented to the committee! 

Stephen Chan (00:06:00 mark), Harvard Medical School, provided an introduction to RNAi technology and discussed research investigating the biological effects of consuming small RNA molecules found in crops. View bio

Stephen Chan graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his MD and PhD from the University of California, San Francisco. He then completed an internship and residency in Internal Medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and fellowship training in Cardiology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. His postdoctoral research was performed in the laboratory of Joseph Loscalzo, MD, PhD, and Dr. Chan joined the faculty at BWH and Harvard Medical School in July 2010 where he is an Assistant Professor of Medicine. Dr. Chan devotes a primary focus on basic research coupled with a clinical practice in general cardiology and pulmonary vascular medicine. Specifically, Dr. Chan’s scientific work has focused on the study of the fundamental biology of non-coding RNAs including microRNAs and their importance in cardiovascular and pulmonary vascular health and disease. In regard to plant biology, Dr. Chan has studied and published on the potential for transfer of non-coding RNAs from ingested dietary substances in mammals and insects. Dr. Chan has held research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, Gilead Sciences, and the Cardiovascular Medical Research and Education Fund. He has been the recipient of a number of philanthropic awards at BWH, including the Lerner Scholarship, the Watkins Discovery Award, the Harris Family Research Prize, and the McArthur-Radovsky Research Scholarship. Dr. Chan has been invited to present his research at both national and international venues, and he has received international research awards from the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, and the American Society of Microbiology.

David Heckel (00:58:00 mark), Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, discussed strategies for using plant-mediated RNAi in crop protection. View bio

David G. Heckel received his Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1980 and from 1980 to 1999 served as assistant, associate, and full professor in biological sciences at Clemson University. He moved to the Genetics Department at the University of Melbourne in Australia from 1999 to 2003. In 2004 he joined the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, as director and head of the Entomology Department. Research interests include the genetic analysis of resistance to chemical insecticides and Bacillus thuringiensis toxins, comparative digestive and detoxicative strategies of host-plant generalist vs. specialist herbivorous insects, reproductive isolating mechanisms in sympatric speciation, the genetics and evolution of sex pheromone communication systems in moths, the role of horizontal gene transfer in conferring novel metabolic functions in herbivorous insects, and the application of RNA interference in pest control.

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