Host‐Induced Gene Silencing for Pest/Pathogen Control


Host‐induced gene silencing (HIGS) is an approach that shows promise for the control of a variety of problematic crop‐damaging organisms, ranging from nematodes and insects, to fungi and parasitic plants. In general, HIGS utilises ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) molecules produced by the plant, which then target key genes in pests/pathogens, ideally leading to improved resistance of the plant and a reduction in damage. As this area of research is still very much in development, the possible off‐target and nontarget effects need to be assessed, as do the long‐term stability and effectiveness. Practical implementation of HIGS to commercial crop production will rely on extensive field‐testing, as well as regulatory and marketplace acceptance of new varieties.

Key Concepts

  • Plants are susceptible to damage from a variety of biological agents, including insect pests, and from pathogens, such as various species of fungi, nematodes and viruses.
  • Damage to crops by biological sources causes significant losses to yield.
  • Silencing of key pest and pathogen genes is a possible strategy for reducing crop damage and can be accomplished by RNA molecules expressed by the host plant.
  • Genetic constructs designed to silence pest and pathogen genes can be stably inserted into the host plant genome through a variety of methods, such as particle bombardment or Agrobacterium‐mediated transformation.
  • An alternate method for silencing genes consists of the direct application of purified RNA molecules to the plant itself.

Keywords: host‐induced gene silencing (HIGS); crops; genetic engineering; biotechnology; plant pests; plant transformation; RNA interference (RNAi); double‐stranded RNA

Figure 1. Overview of HIGS molecular interactions between plant cells and insect pests or fungal pathogens. Natural dsRNAs/hpRNAs or pre‐miRNAs, or synthetic variants (such as amiRNAs), are first transcribed from genomic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in the nucleus of the plant cell. Cropping of miRNA/amiRNA occurs within the nucleus before, or during export, and is catalysed by DICER‐LIKE1 (DCL1). The end product of cropping is an miRNA bound to a passenger strand, termed miRNA*. In contrast, cropping of dsRNA to produce siRNAs occurs after nuclear export and can be catalysed by any of the three functionally redundant DICER LIKE genes DCL2‐4. Some fungi and oomycytes, such as P. infestans, may uptake interfering RNA (ribonucleic acid) in the forms of dsRNA, siRNA and miRNA::miRNA*. These RNAs associate with the RNA‐induced silencing complex (RISC) in the cytoplasm, or with the RNA‐induced transcriptional silencing (RITS) complex in the nucleus. RNA‐dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) catalyses synthesis of secondary (2°) siRNAs from siRNA complexed with RISC. In contrast, insects including Tribolium lack RdRP as well a lack of susceptibility to RNAi from exogenous siRNAs. During HIGS (host‐induced gene silencing), the outcome of the molecular interactions shows results in the reduced expression of targeted genes in the pest/pathogen, such as though methylation (Me) of genomic DNA. Representative organisms are not drawn to scale.


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Nagle, Michael, LeBoldus, Jared M, and Klocko, Amy L(Jan 2018) Host‐Induced Gene Silencing for Pest/Pathogen Control. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023726]