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Aug. 15, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU researchersí findings on popular herbicide published in science journal

LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas might have confirmed fears that Roundup, the most popular herbicide available today, could over time lose its effectiveness on weeds.

The research, which suggests that the farming industry might soon need to develop a new weed-killing, yet environmentally friendly, herbicide, were published this week by the peer-review journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ernst Schönbrunn, associate professor of medicinal chemistry, and Todd Funke, doctoral student at KU, were part of a team that analyzed the protein that makes certain crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup, chemically named glyphosate.

During the 1990s, a company called Monsanto found bacteria that could resist Roundup in a production factory where the herbicide was highly concentrated. Crops were given a DNA sequence from the resistant bacteria and were then able to make a protein that allowed them to resist Roundup. The crops were dubbed Roundup Ready. Weeds do not possess the same protein and thus are killed by the herbicide.

“Roundup Ready crops have been on the market for years, but no one knew exactly what allowed this protein to work,” Funke said.

Schönbrunn says their research indicates that weeds could soon become resistant to Roundup, as did the bacteria in the production factory, because the chemical change needed for plants to resist the herbicide is so minor.

“The scary thing is that glyphosate, or Roundup, is commercially very successful because it is toxic to plants but doesn’t harm animals or the environment,” Schönbrunn said. “The scary thing is all other known herbicides are more poisonous to animals and cause more environmental damage.

“Industry needs to take into consideration that the development of Roundup-resistant weeds could occur rapidly and they’ll need new strategies to combat those weeds. We are probably OK for the time being, but that might change pretty dramatically in the near future, and if we don’t have anything to combat those Roundup-resistant weeds, then farmers will be in big trouble.”

In the United States alone, 89.6 million acres of soybeans, corn and cotton are Roundup Ready. Companies other than Monsanto also market the herbicide under other names.

There is a bright side. Funke said the team’s findings could lead to the development of drugs that fight microbial infections, such as pneumonia or malaria.

Certain parasites need the same enzyme that the weeds need to survive — the enzyme that is inhibited by Roundup spray. If that enzyme is unable to do its job, the parasites die.

“All bacteria, plants, fungi and many parasites use this protein, but humans don’t,” said Funke. “So there’s a lot of interest in designing chemicals to stop this protein from functioning.”

Funke said they plan to search for chemicals that target this protein in order to develop new antibiotics and herbicides.

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