WashU engineer to study how pesticides from GM crops affect environment

Important agricultural crops can be genetically modified (GM) to include molecules that make the plants more resistant to pests and therefore potentially more productive. An environmental engineer at Washington University in St. Louis plans to study the behavior of these molecules in the environment, particularly in soil and surface water.

Kimberly Parker

Kimberly Parker, an incoming assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, received a four-year, $469,227 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the environmental fate of a pesticide that uses RNA interference (RNAi) biotechnology and is produced by novel genetically modified crops. This new technology uses double-stranded RNA molecules as pesticides to prevent pests that feed on the crop from growing or developing.

Crops containing this type of genetic modification undergoes an ecological risk assessment to determine any risks in agriculture. Part of the ecological risk assessment requires information about how the pesticides move through and degrade in the environment, about which little is currently known.

With the funding, Parker will develop new techniques to detect and measure the pesticides in environmental samples, such as soil and surface water. Using these techniques, she also will study how the biological, physical and chemical conditions of soils and surface waters affect the movement and degradation of the pesticides to better understand their environmental fate.

“Novel pesticides are needed to protect crops from important types of pests, but there are other organisms in the environment that are beneficial and that may be exposed to these new pesticides,” Parker said.

“We need to know which organisms might be exposed to these pesticides from GM crops, as well as the amount of pesticide to which they may be exposed. To address this issue, we have to understand the movement and degradation of these new types of pesticides in the environment.”

Parker said the RNAi-based insecticidal technology is new to the market, and the results from her study would provide foundational knowledge to the scientific and public communities about the potential benefits and risks of the technology.

“We are delighted to have recruited Kim Parker and look forward to her applying her expertise in environmental organic chemistry to investigate fundamental processes in addressing challenges in water quality and agriculture,” said Pratim Biswas, assistant vice chancellor for international programs, chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering and the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor. “Her research is well recognized – ACS Environmental Science & Technology journal’s Best Science Paper in 2016, and the Paul V Roberts AEESP Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award in 2017. Winning this USDA grant before she starts her academic career here at Washington University will give her research efforts a boost; and we are looking forward to great accomplishments over the years ahead.”

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.