Protection of canola from pathogenic fungi using RNA interference technologies

Key Result

This project is still in progress, but it aims to to develop a new generation of species-specific foliar fungicides designed to target Sclerotinia sclerotiorum on canola, to reduce reliance on broad-spectrum fungicides, and thereby provide new crop protection technologies to one of Canada’s most important commercial crops.

Project Summary


Canola is Canada’s most important oilseed crop, contributing $26.7 billion to the country’s economy [1]. Canola crops are threatened by a variety of fungal pathogens, but one of the most damaging is Sclerotinia sclerotiorum. This fungus occurs in all canola growing regions of Canada and throughout the world [2-4], causing stem rot of the plants. Annual losses due to this fungus are highly variable, ranging from 5 to 100%; in 2010, 90% of Canadian canola crops showed some level of Sclerotinia infection and the loss to growers was estimated at $600 million [5]. With no available Sclerotinia-resistant cultivars available, damage from this fungus is mitigated primarily by crop rotations and foliar fungicides. Unfortunately, under damp climatic conditions, such methods are insufficient to control the disease. In addition, there is increasing public concern over the risk that chemicals pose to the environment and human health. Together, these present compelling reasons to find safer (fungal or species-specific) alternatives to control this costly fungal pathogen.

RNA interference (RNAi) is a method of reducing a targeted gene’s expression through the application of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). Recently, we identified dsRNA molecules that can inhibit Sclerotinia growth, and have observed that topical application of these dsRNAs, under laboratory conditions, can reduce Sclerotinia infections in canola. Due to RNAi’s high degree of specificity, we can design dsRNAs to target just the pathogenic fungus or related pathogenic fungi, and not affect beneficial species.  


This research is aimed at developing and field-test a new generation of dsRNA-based, species-specific foliar fungicides that can be designed to target Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, to reduce our reliance on broad-spectrum fungicides and provide canola growers with safer alternatives to existing conventional chemistries. The development of topically-applied RNAi technologies will reduce excessive chemical inputs and promote agro-ecological health. Implementation of RNAi technologies that prevent Sclerotinia outbreaks will be made accessible to researchers and producers, thus enhancing the resiliency of the agriculture sector.


1. Identification and nomination of Sclerotinia bioactive dsRNA molecules.

  • Conduct RNAseq to identify fungal genes associated with pathogenicity, infection, or proliferative growth in different plant tissues and at different stages of the infection cycle.
  • Establish a prioritized list of the most effective dsRNAs, based on gene expression profiles and species-specificity.

2. Synthesis of dsRNAs and screening for fungicidal activity against Sclerotinia and non-target effects.

  • Using high throughput RNAi bioassay screening methods, over 200 dsRNAs, synthesized in house, will be tested for their efficacy to suppress Sclerotinia.
  • Testing the 20 most potent dsRNAs that control Sclerotinia on non-target benign or non-pathogenic fungi, to assess species-specificity.

3. Development and testing of topical formulations for dsRNA adhesion to leaves and durability under different environmental conditions.

  • Test adjuvants and microcarriers for adhesion to plant leaves under various UV exposures, watering regimens, wind and abrasive compounds within the laboratory.
  • Test adjuvants and microcarriers for enhanced bioactivity, including assessing whether the dsRNAs can penetrate plant tissues under different application methods.
  • Test the best performing application formulations under field conditions.

4. Assess persistence of dsRNAs in the soil

  • Test persistence of dsRNA in soil using different formulations, dsRNA structures, and soil types.

References; 2. Baharlouei et al., 2011, African J Biotech 10: 5785-5794; 3. Litholdo et al., 2010, Genetics Molec Res 10: 868-877; 4. Hu et al., 2011, Can J Microbiology 57: 539-546;;