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Smarter toxins help crops fight resistant pests

ter understand how Bt toxins work and to develop countermeasures to control resistant pests.

Our collaborators developed detailed models about each step at the molecular level, Tabashnik said, what receptors the toxins bind to, which enzymes they interact with and so on.

Previous work had demonstrated that binding of Bt toxins to a cadherin protein in the insect gut is a key step in the process that ultimately kills the insect. Results at UNAM indicated that binding of Bt toxins to cadherin promotes the next step - trimming of a small portion of the toxins by the insect's enzymes. Meanwhile, Tabashnik's team identified lab-selected resistant strains of a major cotton pest, pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella), in which genetic mutations altered cadherin and thereby reduced binding of Bt toxins.

The findings from UNAM and UA considered together implied that in resistant strains of the pest, naturally occurring genetic mutations changed the lock -- the cadherin receptor -- so that Bt toxin the key no longer fits. As a result, the trimming does not occur, the whole chain of events is stopped in its tracks, and the insects survive.

Said Tabashnik: So our collaborators in Mexico asked, Why dont we trim the toxin ourselves, by using genetic engineering to create modified Bt toxins that no longer need the intact cadherin receptor to kill the pests?

In initial tests, the researchers found that the modified toxins killed caterpillars of the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, in which production of cadherin was blocked by a technique called RNA interference. The modified toxins also killed resistant pink bollworm caterpillars carrying mutations that altered their cadherin.

Those experiments led us to hypothesize that any insect carrying a mutant cadherin receptor as a mechanism of resistance would be killed by the modified Bt toxins, Tabashnik said.

To find out, the team invited colleagues from all over the world to participate

Contact: Daniel Stolte
University of Arizona

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