Over the last few years, one of the most successful strategies in pest control is to endow crop plants with genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Called Bt for short this codes for proteins that kill pests attempting to eat them.
But insect pests are evolving resistance to Bt toxins, which threatens the continued success of this approach. In the current issue of Nature Biotechnology,
a research team led by UA Professor Bruce Tabashnik reports the discovery that a small modification of the toxins' structure overcomes the defenses of some major pests that are resistant to the natural, unmodified Bt toxins."A given Bt toxin only kills certain insects that have the right receptors in their gut," explained Tabashnik, head of the UA's entomology department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "This is one reason why Bt toxins are an environmentally friendly way to control pests," he said. "They don't kill indiscriminately. Bt cotton, for example, will not kill bees, lady bugs, and other beneficial insects."Unlike conventional broad-spectrum insecticides, Bt toxins kill only a narrow range of species because their potency is determined by a highly specific binding interaction with receptors on the surface of the insects' gut cells, similar to a key that only fits a certain lock."If you change the lock, it won't work," Tabashnik said. "Insects adapt through evolutionary change. Naturally occurring mutations are out there in the insect populations, and those individuals that carry genes that make them resistant to the Bt toxins have a selective advantage."