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Biotech Science

Insects Rapidly Becoming Resistant To GM Corn 368

DrHeasley writes "BT corn, which contains the DNA for Bacillus thuringensis toxin, was once hailed as the final solution for insect predators on this valuable crop. Now it turns out that insects, and evolution, are smarter than we thought, and the corn that contains the built in pesticide is no longer reliably protected."
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Insects Rapidly Becoming Resistant To GM Corn

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  • Re:Jeff Goldblum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @03:12AM (#38523514) Homepage Journal
    It's been doing this for millions of years. Plants evolve pesticides constantly. There are species of cacti that grow in perfect grids because they toxify the soil against even their own seedlings (a common trick amongst trees, to prevent crowding) and it's why wild almonds contain cyanide. The only real surprise is how fast the insects coevolved—but perhaps, given the rate of adaptation of bacteria to antibiotics, that's foolish of us.

    Still, don't take this as an excuse to be ecologically destructive. Species that are already under stress don't have much leeway, and any shot to biological diversity is bad for the biosphere's durability as a whole, excepting perhaps idiotic birds like the kakopo.
  • Re:Surprise? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @03:34AM (#38523596) Homepage Journal
    It may amuse you to learn how the Monsanto people "engineered" their genetically modified and patent-protected seeds.

    They hit them with random mutagens until they found something that was resistant to Roundup. And then they bred them like pedigree cats to enhance the effect. The grass genome (from which corn, wheat, and a number of other crops are derived) is absurdly complex, believed to contain four to six times as many genes as the human, and comes in five copies. Engineering it is very hit-and-miss. So they didn't even bother. Instead they patented the outcome of a directed natural process. It's like patenting the domesticated cow genome. (The grass-eating variety, not the mother-in-law variety.)
  • Re:Jeff Goldblum (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 29, 2011 @03:42AM (#38523638)

    #correction HUNDREDS of millions of years (if not billions).

    I'm rather un-surprised at the adaptation speed of the insects actually.
    When studying evolutionary process, we used fruit flies specifically because of the extreme adaptation rates.

    The high population size of the insects, coupled with their high mutation rate, and ever-increasing adaptation speed (family lines that adapt faster are a positive selection factor in evolution among many species) points in a fairly obvious direction of their overcoming our ham-handed attempt at creating resistant corn.
    The only other real direction I could have seen it going would have been the extinction of those insects that depended on the corn for survival.

    My biggest complaint about food crops, rather than their GM-ness (success or failure) is that once we get a "good" strain, we keep cloning it instead of continuing the process via selective breeding. So while each generation of insect improves against the crop, the crop defends damn-near exactly the same way; I suspect that may have reduced the time needed for adaptation as well.

  • by erice ( 13380 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @04:25AM (#38523760) Homepage

    We didn't expect it to happen so quickly, that's all. Bacteria evolve much more rapidly than insects: E. coli splits once every 8 hours under optimal conditions in colonies of millions of cells, and may mutate up to 0.003% of their genome with each cell division under stress. That's a lot of brute forcing power. Insects, by contrast, have much more elaborate and stringent eukaryotic mutation controls, and most species take a couple of weeks to hatch.

    Which probably means that some small fraction of the population was already resistant when the "experiment" began. No need to wait for a lucky mutation. Just apply strong selection pressure and the trait quickly spreads.

  • Re:Surprise? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kdemetter ( 965669 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @04:45AM (#38523832)

    You are on to something there :

    - a patent on GM seeds only lasts for a few years
    - It only takes a few years for the insects to overcome the GM corn's resistance
    - new GM seeds are invented in the mean time , which are again patented

    Using this technique, you could trigger a targeted evolution in insects, making them much more dangerous for non-GM crops, effectively forcing farmers to use the GM seeds.

  • Re:Jeff Goldblum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FirephoxRising ( 2033058 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @05:04AM (#38523904)
    I'm amazed that anyone is surprised at all. If you have a selection pressure (the BT corn), then eventually (and not that long, insects breed fast) one mutation will arise that allows the insect to eat it, breed and pass on the resistant genes. Soon the new genotype is the dominant one, and the corn is lunch. They'll need to use toxic sprays to wipe out these populations and then stop using BT crops constantly, if you break us the cycle, the BT eaters will have no advantage and possibly be at a disadvantage compared to the other insects, and the population will not be composed of resistant members. The organic movement has been saying that this would happen since they first announced the new GM corn. BT is best used as a spray in combination with other management strategies. Idiots. The amazing thing is that they want to sue neighbouring farmers if the GM genes cross the boundary (when they said it wouldn't) and they are surprised when organic farmers sue them back if they lose their accreditation due to the contamination. Talk about wanting it all ways!
  • by plsenjy ( 2104800 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @06:00AM (#38524080)

    A couple months ago I drove Dr. Don Huber of Purdue from the airport to a field day (ag industry for product demo) being put on by my family's non-GMO seed firm in the Upper Midwest. He of course had already been hearing of this problem for a while (the plant pathology/development community is pretty small, and when something new crops up everyone is in the loop) but was (and still is) much more concerned with a different pathogen that's been cropping up slowly for the past few years at higher and higher rates. Personally, I am not a seedsman and can't explain it very well, besides saying that it's a bacteria that he has been linking to Roundup Ready plants (Roundup Ready is a gene that Monsanto inserts in all sorts of plants in order to make them resistant to a pungent herbicide, Roundup) that causes infertility in everything it touches and we're unsure of how to deal with it. This website explains the problem pretty well (ignore the activism associated with it, it should just be used as a teaching point) http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/sign/dr_hubers_warning/ [fooddemocracynow.org]

    What's really chilling is that our non-GMO firm does very well outside the US. This is because most country's will not allow GMO's to be planted in their country due to their lack of long-term testing of effects on humans. I can't remember the exact regulation but in the EU they only allow something like 10-15% of their foodstock to be GMO. In Japan they're not allowed to be planted at all. My dad (the non-GMO seedsman) always likes to tell this anecdote - that when asked why they won't plant any GMO corn, the Japanese grainsman says, "We are conservative with our food. We want to see what it does to your children's children before we'll even consider it."

  • Re:Jeff Goldblum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jedidiah ( 1196 ) on Thursday December 29, 2011 @12:17PM (#38526852) Homepage

    I think it is worse than that. Once you have seeds that are the "property" of a single corporation you have only one entity that is capable of subsequent derivative works. Instead of having "an entire planet of hackers" trying to solve the problem of continued viability, all work is limited to the single corporation that may not feel motivated to plan ahead.

    It's the Cathedral and the Bazaar all over again.

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982