A Norwich-based science team has secured £150,000 of funding to urgently find "molecular solutions" to a devastating crop virus - so farmers won't need to use harmful pesticides.

John Innes Centre researcher Dr Yiliang Ding and her colleagues received the European Research Council (ERC) "proof of concept" grant to develop new genetic approaches to combat the problem of virus yellows, which has been causing severe damage to East Anglia's sugar beet crops.

The virus can destroy 50pc of the crop yield and is carried by aphids which were previously controlled by neonicotinoid pesticides - seed treatments banned in 2019 due to fears over their impact on the health of bees and pollinators.

Last week, Defra granted an emergency temporary authorisation for the "limited and controlled" use of the chemicals on sugar beet in 2021 after industry bodies said the disease posed a serious threat to the 2021 crop.

The move provoked outrage among conservationists, but was welcomed as a vital short-term solution by farmers.

However, in the longer-term, alternative genetic solutions are urgently needed to replace neonicotinoid pesticides.

The "ultra-RNA" approach developed by Dr Ding’s group works with viral RNAs (ribonucleic acids) which are described as "messengers" carrying genetic codes from an organism's DNA.

By using this technique, the team hopes to develop a treatment which can target and degrade the virus – without the environmental damage associated with farm pesticides and chemical sprays.

Roland Wouters a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, said: "We want to specifically target the virus, which is done with an RNA.

"It is not like a neonicotinoid which kills the target insect but could kill other beneficial insects as well.

"With this technique we only attack the virus we want to attack. We want to be specific, and only attack the things that are harmful. That is why insecticides are not the best way forward."

Group leader Dr Ding added: “This is very much a team project and I am delighted that our work has been recognised in this way and my group can now look forward to developing urgently-needed solutions."