Sunday, July 01, 2012

mutated pests are quickly adapting to biotech crops in unpredicted and disturbing ways

io9 | Genetically modified crops are often designed to repel hungry insects. By having toxins built into the plant itself, farmers can reduce their use of environmentally unfriendly insecticide sprays. But as any first-year evolutionary biology student can tell you, insects are like the Borg in Star Trek: they quickly adapt. And this is precisely what is happening – but in ways that have startled the researchers themselves.

The discovery is a wakeup call to geneticists because it has highlighted the importance of having to closely monitor and counter pest resistance to biotech crops. The development also raises the question of the potential futility of having to change the genetic structure of crops in perpetuity; given that insects are constantly evolving, to what degree will geneticists have to go to ensure crop immunity to pests? And what does that say to the ongoing safety of such crops as far as human consumption is concerned?

Case in point are cotton bollworms. To deal with these pests, genetic scientists have developed an insect-killing cotton plant that produces toxins derived from the Bt bacterium (geneticists say that these toxins are harmless to most other creatures, including humans). But the bollworms are developing a resistance. Scientists have observed that a rare genetic mutation in bollworms makes them immune to Bt – and that the mutation isn't so rare any more.

One scientist who predicted that these insects would adapt is Bruce Tabashnik, head of the department of entomology at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-author of the study making note of these findings. To stay ahead of the game, Tabashnik studied bollworms in the lab just to see how they would adapt to the toxin. Then, expecting to see the same sorts of adaptations in the real world, he took a look at bollworms in China.

What he found there was a bit disturbing. Yes, he discovered bollworms that exhibited the exact same mutations as the ones in his lab – but the Chinese insects also showed some adaptations that were completely unexpected. Speaking through a University of Arizona release, Tabashnik noted that, "[W]e also found lots of other mutations, most of them in the same gene and one in a completely different gene." Fist tap Dale.

11 comments:

Big Don said...

Sort of OT: Where's DV these days? No new stuff there for 2 weeks...

messianicdruid said...

Everyone must plant their crops for {the same} six years. Everyone must let the land lie fallow for {the same} one year. Repeat. Problem handled.

umbrarchist said...

A few year ago I saw a device that used lasers to shoot mosquitoes out of the air. How slow do those caterpillars move? How difficult would it be to get machine vision to recognize them. Robots that ran all day and fired lasers at bugs would not alter their genetics.

CNu said...

I'm guessing that device existed to demonstrate the speed and fluidity of automated target acquisition, but had no cost effective functional value. I'm further guessing the power involved with moving something through cotton fields to get at caterpillars would be an exponentially more complicated, expensive and infeasible for practical application.

Dale Asberry said...

All the more reason to use the highly efficient human machine to hand pick the buggers. Can even put 'em in a container and feed them to chickens! Would encourage full employment (especially for those hot-headed young males otherwise destined for cannon fodder) and provide high protein sources at reduced costs for the chickens!

Dale Asberry said...

Not true. Slows soil depletion down significantly but doesn't eliminate it. Iraq was a lush forest 5000 years ago. The problem is actually in the tilling of the soil -- it causes extreme biological activity that eventually consumes all the carbon. Replace our seasonal grains with perennial grains and a big portion of the problem is solved. The next big step is getting all the human highly dense nutrient output back into that system.

CNu said...

You'll get no argument from me, but the hue and cry of Plantation 2.0 - 2012 is already clearly audible....,

Dale Asberry said...

How else will we handle all those prison inmates sitting around in a cell doin' nothin'? It's un-Murkan!

umbrarchist said...

Actually it was intended to fight malaria.

http://articles.cnn.com/2009-03-16/health/mosquito.laser.weapon_1_mosquitoes-laser-gun-malaria?_s=PM:HEALTH

Actually I don't think a laser powerful enough to kill a caterpillar would not need to be very powerful and the fire time could be very short.. I bet the vision system to find the caterpillars would take more power.

Maybe those little helicopters could fly over the fields and find the bugs.

CNu said...

Call my cynical, but Star Wars means "automated target acquisition" so no surprises there, but are you sure it was intended to fight malaria instead of just an excuse to recycle old methods in exchange for some less than scrupulously governed grant funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation?

umbrarchist said...

I don't have time to be cynical and paranoid about EVERYTHING. I just thought it was a great way to kill mosquitoes without chemicals. I didn't buy the millions per hour stuff though.

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