Multi-toxin biotech crops not silver bullets, scientists warn
One critical assumption of the pyramid strategy is that the crops provide redundant killing, Carrière explained. "Redundant killing can be achieved by plants producing two toxins that act in different ways to kill the same pest," he said, "so, if an individual pest has resistance to one toxin, the other toxin will kill it."
In the real world, things are a bit more complicated, Carrière's team found out. Thierry Brévault, a visiting scientist from France, led the lab experiments at the UA. His home institution, the Center for Agricultural Research for Development, or CIRAD, is keenly interested in factors that could affect pest resistance to Bt crops in Africa.
"We obviously can't release resistant insects into the field, so we breed them in the lab and bring in the crop plants to do feeding experiments," Carrière said. For their experiments, the group collected cotton bollworm – also known as corn earworm or Helicoverpa zea –, a species of moth that is a major agricultural pest, and selected it for resistance against one of the Bt toxins, Cry1Ac.
As expected, the resistant caterpillars survived after munching on cotton plants producing only that toxin. The surprise came when Carrière's team put them on pyramided Bt cotton containing Cry2Ab in addition to Cry1Ac.
If the assumption of redundant killing is correct, caterpillars resistant to the first toxin should survive on one-toxin plants, but not on two-toxin plants, because the second toxin should kill them, Carrière explained.
"But on the two-toxin plants, the caterpillars selected for resistance to one toxin survived significantly better than caterpillars from a susceptible strain."
These findings show that the crucial assumption of redundant killing does not apply in this case and may also explain the reports indicating some field populations of cotton bollworm rapidly evolved resistance to both toxins.
Moreover, the team's analysis of published data from eight species of pests reveals that some degree of cross-resistance between Cry1 and Cry2 toxins occurred in 19 of 21 experiments. Contradicting the concept of redundant killing, cross-resistance means that selection with one toxin increases resistance to the other toxin.
According to the study's authors, even low levels of cross-resistance can reduce redundant killing and undermine the pyramid strategy. Carrière explained that this is especially problematic with cotton bollworm and some other pests that are not highly susceptible to Bt toxins to begin with.