Exchange Value: In a first, gene-transfer between insects & plants has just been reported

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April 5, 2021 7:00 AM

Parasites, pathogens and pests—the remarkable ways in which they adapt to target their hosts/prey is surely impressive. The adaptation is sometimes behavioural, sometimes ecological, and, some other times, in much more intricate evolution, as fundamental as genetic adaptation.

Chinese scientists who reported the plant-insect gene transfer are examining such questions; this could open up a new frontier in agriculture. Representative Image

Parasites, pathogens and pests—the remarkable ways in which they adapt to target their hosts/prey is surely impressive. The adaptation is sometimes behavioural, sometimes ecological, and, some other times, in much more intricate evolution, as fundamental as genetic adaptation.

Recent studies show whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) is able to nuetralise a toxin that is made by any plants, including the plants, that the insect attacks, by having stolen a gene from the plant host millions of years ago, reports Nature. It is the first such instance of genetic transfer between plants and insects.

The pest, considered to be one of the most destructive for many crops, brings a triple whammy for hosts—apart from feeding on the plant, it excretes a substance that is a breeding ground for fungal pests and is also a vector over a 100 disease-causing plant-viruses. Genetic filching between predators and prey and others in an ecosystem is fairly common, indeed, a tool of survival.

But, so far, insect-pests were known to have appropriated microbial and fungal genes to be better able to prey on plants, but with the new research showing a more direct commandeering of genes, this could help reimagine crop protection. If a whitefly can neutralise a certain group of compounds called phenolic glycosides, can a crop-plant be genetically engineered to express a different toxin (toxic only to the pest)? Chinese scientists who reported the plant-insect gene transfer are examining such questions; this could open up a new frontier in agriculture.

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