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Soil mobility of synthetic and virus-based model nanopesticides


Large doses of chemical pesticides are required to achieve effective concentrations in the rhizosphere, which results in the accumulation of harmful residues. Precision farming is needed to improve the efficacy of pesticides, but also to avoid environmental pollution, and slow-release formulations based on nanoparticles offer one solution. Here, we tested the mobility of synthetic and virus-based model nanopesticides by combining soil column experiments with computational modelling. We found that the tobacco mild green mosaic virus and cowpea mosaic virus penetrate soil to a depth of at least 30 cm, and could therefore deliver nematicides to the rhizosphere, whereas the Physalis mosaic virus remains in the first 4 cm of soil and would be more useful for the delivery of herbicides. Our experiments confirm that plant viruses are superior to synthetic mesoporous silica nanoparticles and poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) for the delivery and controlled release of pesticides, and could be developed as the next generation of pesticide delivery systems.

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Fig. 1: The combined experimental and computational approach to assess nanopesticide transport through soil.
Fig. 2: Cargo release from nanoparticles during dialysis.
Fig. 3: Experimental transport of nanopesticides and pesticides through soil.
Fig. 4: Theoretical transport of nanoparticles through soil.
Fig. 5: Theoretical transport of Cy5 through soil.
Fig. 6: Theoretical treatment of a crop infected with nematodes using TMGMV–abamectin.

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Data availability

The following raw data can be found in the Supplementary Information: the composition of the soil used to produce all experimental data (Supplementary Tables 2 and 3); the SDS PAGE required to reproduce the data presented in Fig. 3 (Supplementary Fig. 5); the Matlab code required to reproduce the data presented in Figs. 46 (Supplementary Code 1).

Code availability

These dimensionless equations were solved using partial differential equation solver function ‘pdepe’ (Matlab). All code was made available in Supplementary Code 1.


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This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation CAREER DMR 1841848 (to N.F.S.) and NIH EB021911 (to H.B.). We thank H. Hu for providing the PhMV particles used in this study.

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Authors and Affiliations



N.F.S. devised the project, the main conceptual ideas and proof outline. P.L.C. developed the technical procedures and performed the experiments, and developed the mathematical model under the supervision of G.M.S. and H.B. A.B.D. and A.G.W. performed the gel electrophoresis technical work under the supervision of P.L.C. The numerical solution of the computational model was executed using Matlab by P.L.C., under the supervision of H.B. P.L.C. and N.F.S. wrote the manuscript; all the authors read or edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nicole F. Steinmetz.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figs. 1–13, Supplementary Tables 1–5, Matlab codes.

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Chariou, P.L., Dogan, A.B., Welsh, A.G. et al. Soil mobility of synthetic and virus-based model nanopesticides. Nat. Nanotechnol. 14, 712–718 (2019).

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