Carleton University’s Maria DeRosa is one of 24 scientists worldwide to receive a 2021 Grants4Ag award for her work using short stretches of DNA called aptamers to make agriculture more sustainable.

After receiving more than 600 proposals from almost 40 countries, the Bayer Crop Science team selected 24 proposals to fund. From protecting plants with beneficial bacteria to detecting disease through drones and artificial intelligence, these scientists have outstanding innovations to help farmers protect crops.

In Carleton’s Laboratory for Aptamer Discovery and Development of Emerging Research (LADDER), DeRosa is developing biosensors and “smart” materials based on aptamers—short synthetic DNA or RNA sequences that specifically bind to a diverse variety of targets from small molecules to whole cells. The goal is to discover new aptamer sequences, understand their binding properties and apply them to help solve problems in a wide range of fields, including health, environment and agriculture.

“We find aptamers that are able to fold up into a tiny shape that lets them stick really well to a target molecule, such as a virus or a drug,” said DeRosa, professor in the Department of Chemistry. “Think of a lock and a key, the aptamer might fold up into a shape that is a “lock” and the target molecule might fit well into the shape as the “key.” These special aptamers are very specific—only one target molecule will be the key that fits the lock. This allows them to be great building blocks for things like sensors since they can be very selective about what they bind to and that can allow you to be confident in your measurement.”

DeRosa is interested in how aptamers can be used to make agriculture more sustainable. For example, in health research, aptamers have been used to help guide a drug to a diseased tissue while avoiding healthy cells. This led DeRosa and her team to wonder if they could also be used to help deliver an agrochemical to a pest while avoiding any effect on the crop or other species, or if aptamers could deliver nutrients selectively to a crop while avoiding uptake by a weed. If this targeting could be achieved, then it would mean less product used, less waste, better yields and a smaller environmental footprint.

Thursday, June 3, 2021 in
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