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Most widely used organic pesticide requires help to kill

The world's most widely used organic insecticide, a plucky bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt for short, requires the assistance of other microbes to perform its insect-slaying work, a new study has found.

Writing in the Sept. 26 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that without the help of the native bacteria that colonize the insect gut, Bt is unable to perform its lethal work.

The startling new insight into the workings of one of the most important and environmentally friendly weapons in the human arsenal against insect pests has significant implications not only for the control of insects in agriculture, forestry and human health, but for understanding microbial disease in humans and other animals.

"The take-home message is that we've shown that the mechanism of killing for Bacillus thuringiensis is facilitated by the normal gut community," says Nichole Broderick, a UW-Madison graduate student and the lead author of the PNAS study. "This is a mechanism that was not previously known."

First discovered in 1911, Bacillus thuringiensis was developed as a commercially important insecticide in the 1950s. It is by far the most widely used natural agent to control important insect pests, and the genes that make Bt's toxic proteins have been engineered into numerous crop plants. Transgenic crops using the bacterium's genes are the most prevalent of any engineered plants, and are planted on millions of acres in the United States alone.

Although Bt and the toxic proteins it makes have been studied for decades, how the microbe goes about killing the insects it infects has been assumed to be a simple toxin-mediated disruption of the cells that line the insect gut. The damaged cells, according to the prevailing hypothesis, lead to starvation. An alternative hypothesis holds that the spread of the bacterium in infected
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Source:University of Wisconsin-Madison


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