Transgenic Plants

A recent development in crop protection has been the release of crop plants genetically engineered to express genes for insecticidal toxins derived from the microbe B. thuringiensis. In 2001 the total area worldwide planted to Bt plants was estimated to exceed 12 million ha. Existing toxin genes in Bt cotton and corn are active specifically against certain key lepidopteran pests (especially bollworms and corn borers); another engineered into potatoes provides protection against the Colorado potato beetle.

Aside from their commercial prospects, insect-tolerant transgenic crops offer numerous potential benefits to agriculture. By affording constitutive expression of toxins in plant tissues throughout a growing season, the incorporation of Bt genes into crops could reduce dramatically the use of conventional broad-spectrum insecticides against insect pests, as well as remove the dependence of pest control on extrinsic factors such as climate and on the efficiency of traditional application methods. However, this high and persistent level of expression also introduces a considerable risk of pests adapting rapidly to resist genetically engineered toxins. To date, there are no substantiated reports of resistance selected directly by exposure to commercial transgenic crops, but resistance to conventional Bt sprays (selected in either the laboratory or the field) has been reported in more than a dozen insect species. Research into the causes and inheritance of such resistance is providing valuable insights into the threats facing Bt plants and the efficacy of possible countermeasures.

Tactics proposed for sustaining the effectiveness of Bt plants have many parallels with those considered for managing resistance to conventional insecticides. However, they are more limited in scope because of the long persistence and constitutive expression of engineered toxins, and because of the limited diversity of transgenes currently available. Indeed, for existing "single-gene" plants, the only prudent and readily implementable tactic is to ensure that substantial numbers of pests survive in nontransgenic refugia. These can be incorporated into the crop itself, or or they may comprise alternative host plants. The success of this strategy is dependent on some key assumptions: (1) that resistant mutations are recessive or at least only partially dominant, so that their heterozygous forms can be controlled by the toxins expressed; (2) that refugia will produce enough susceptible insects to ensure that insects carrying resistant alleles do not meet and mate; and (3) that resistant alleles will carry a fitness cost, rendering insects less fit when the selection pressure is removed (e.g, outside the growing season when the insect is dependent on other crops).

In the longer term, there are potentially more durable options for resistance management: stacking (or pyramiding) of two or more genes in the same cultivar, or possibly rotations of cultivars expressing different single toxins. Whatever measures are adopted, it is essential that plants expressing transgenes be exploited as components of multitactic strategies rather than as a panacea for resistance problems with conventional insecticides.

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