Resistance: A Threat to the Insecticidal Crystal Proteins of Bacillus thuringiensis


  • Leah S. Bauer


Insecticidal crystal proteins (also known as d-endotoxins) synthesized by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis Berliner (Bt) are the active ingredient of various environmentally friendly insecticides that are 1) highly compatible with natural enemies and other nontarget organisms due to narrow host specificity, 2) harmless to vertebrates, 3) biodegradable in the environment, and 4) highly amenable to genetic engineering. The use of transgenic plants expressing Bt d-endotoxins has the potential to greatly reduce the environmental and health costs associated with the use of conventional insecticides. The complex mode of action of Bt is the subject of intensive research. When eaten by a susceptible insect d-endotoxin crystals are solubilized in the midgut; proteases then cleave protoxin molecules into activated toxin which binds to receptors on the midgut brush border membrane. Part of the toxin molecule inserts into the membrane causing the midgut cells to leak, swell, and lyse; death results from bacterial septicemia. Insecticides formulated with Bt account for less than 1% of the total insecticides used each year worldwide because of high cost, narrow host range, and comparatively low efficacy. Environmental contamination, food safety concerns, and pest resistance to conventional insecticides have caused a steady increase in demand for Bt-based insecticides. The recent escalation of commercial interest in Bt has resulted in more persistent and efficacious formulations. For example, improved Bt-based insecticides have allowed management of the diamondback moth, Plutella xylostella (L.). Unfortunately this has resulted in the evolution of resistance to d-endotoxins in P. xylostella populations worldwide. The recent appearance of Bt resistance in the field, corroborated by the results of laboratory selection experiments, demonstrates genetically-based resistance in several species of Lepidoptera, Diptera, and Coleoptera. The genetic capacity to evolve resistance to these toxins is probably present in all insects, and the heritability, fitness costs, and stability of the resistance trait are documented in several insect populations. In two strains of Bt-resistant lepidopteran species, mechanisms of resistance involve reductions in the binding of toxin to midgut receptors. Research on other resistant strains suggests that other mechanisms are also involved. Unfortunately, the high stability of the resistance trait, as well as broad spectrum cross-resistance to other d-endotoxins, undermines many potential options for resistance management. Genetically engineered plants, expressing d-endotoxin continuously and at ultrahigh doses, ensure intense and rapid selection of the target insect population. The efficacy of transgenic plants can be preserved only by developing an integrated pest management program that is designed specifically to reduce selection pressure by minimizing exposure to Bt and increasing other mortality factors, thereby slowing the rate of pest adaptation to Bt.






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