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Professor, student in hunt for new pesticide

October 20, 2009

In a laboratory atThe University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a faculty researcher and his student assistant seek the key to unlock a new generation of pesticides.


Nick Faulkner (left) with Dr. Jeremy Sellers

With a good supply of fruit flies and a grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC), the pair began their yearlong study last summer.

The work of Dr. Jeremy Sellers, a geneticist, and Nick Faulkner, a sophomore from Rolesville, N.C., is funded by a $5,000 Undergraduate Biotechnology Research Fellowship. It was one of 15 grants for undergraduate research from the state agency that promotes biotechnology in North Carolina.

“This is the first year of this fellowship, so we felt particularly fortunate to be included,” Dr. Sellers said. “There is a growing interest in research in biotechnology among our students, and one component of this fellowship is the recruitment of promising young students into research.”

For Faulkner, who is a second year student, it is an ambition realized.

“The biotechnology program is why I came to UNCP,” he said. “As an undergraduate at a larger school, I might never get this type of laboratory experience.”

Faulkner showed promise as a student in Dr. Sellers’ genetics class.

“Nick is one of the youngest students in this program, but given his background, I felt he was ready,” he said. “He wrote a piece for the grant application and proved an appealing candidate to the NCBC.”

Dr. Sellers’ research focuses on the transport of lipids – oils and fats – in living things. Ultimately, the molecular geneticist hopes to identify mechanisms for modulating the production or transport of harmful lipids such as cholesterol in humans.

At hand is a scientific puzzle to modify or turn off the specific gene in a fruit fly that produces a transfer protein.

“We are seeking to inhibit a gene that is important to lipid transport and the metabolism of fat,” Dr. Sellers said. “Our hope is to reduce the insect’s mobility or reproductive capacity or kill them outright.

“When this gene is absent in mammals, they do not survive as embryos, so we know that the gene is essential for development,” he said.

The researchers are looking for a genetic inhibitor of the RNA that makes the target protein. The relatively new field of RNA inhibition, which involves the targeting of specific cellular RNAs for destruction, is now being widely utilized in basic science as well as pharmaceutical research.  

“Think of it as a letter that we are trying to stop at the post office, or at the RNA in this case. This technology will allow us to destroy the letter before the information in it can be read by the cell,” Faulker said. “We are not sure yet how we will introduce the inhibitor, possibly as a spray, in food or some other way.”

If it works, the genetic inhibitor could be without the environmental side effects associated with more traditional broad-spectrum chemical insecticides, Dr. Sellers said.

“An inhibitor constructed as such could be a specific insecticide that, when applied to a crop, kills one species and leaves other insects, some of which are beneficial, untouched,” he said.

“Right now, we are trying to identify the correct version of the genetic sequence to target,” Faulkner said. “There are currently two sequences in the worldwide database that are very similar. The specificity of this technology requires that we know which of the two are in the cells we wish to treat.”