Multi-toxin biotech crops not silver bullets, scientists warn
The popular new strategy of planting genetically engineered crops that make two or more toxins to fend off insect pests rests on assumptions that don’t always apply, University of Arizona researchers have discovered. Their study helps explain why one major pest is evolving resistance much faster than predicted and offers ideas for more sustainable pest control.
A strategy widely used to prevent pests from quickly adapting to crop-protecting toxins may fail in some cases unless better preventive actions are taken, suggests new research by University of Arizona entomologists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Corn and cotton have been genetically modified to produce pest-killing proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short. Compared with typical insecticide sprays, the Bt toxins produced by genetically engineered crops are much safer for people and the environment, explained Yves Carrière, a professor of entomology in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who led the study.
Although Bt crops have helped to reduce insecticide sprays, boost crop yields and increase farmer profits, their benefits will be short-lived if pests adapt rapidly, said Bruce Tabashnik, a co-author of the study and head of the UA department of entomology. "Our goal is to understand how insects evolve resistance so we can develop and implement more sustainable, environmentally friendly pest management," he said. Tabashnik and Carrière are both members of the UA's BIO5 Institute.
Bt crops were first grown widely in 1996, and several pests have already become resistant to plants that produce a single Bt toxin. To thwart further evolution of pest resistance to Bt crops, farmers have recently shifted to the "pyramid" strategy: each plant produces two or more toxins that kill the same pest. As reported in the study, the pyramid strategy has been adopted extensively, with two-toxin Bt cotton completely replacing one-toxin Bt cotton since 2011 in the U.S.
Most scientists agree that two-toxin plants will be more durable than one-toxin plants. The extent of the advantage of the pyramid strategy, however, rests on assumptions that are not always met, the study reports. Using lab experiments, computer simulations and analysis of published experimental data, the new results help explain why one major pest has started to become resistant faster than anticipated.
"The pyramid strategy has been touted mostly on the basis of simulation models," said Carrière. "We tested the underlying assumptions of the models in lab experiments with a major pest of corn and cotton. The results provide empirical data that can help to improve the models and make the crops more durable."
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