These Genes Might Let You Grow
By Hank Becker
September 30, 1999
Commercial vegetable producers and home gardeners may one day have fewer
problems with caterpillars eating up their corn, broccoli, cauliflower and
other vegetables, thanks to new genes that command plant cells to produce a
Scientists with the Agricultural Research
Service and Mississippi State
University were the first to find and isolate the protein in
insect-resistant corn. The scientists, ARS plant geneticist W. Paul Williams
and MSU biochemist and molecular biologist Dawn Luthe, believe the protein
helps keep tiny fall armyworm larvae from developing into fat caterpillars that
eat corn and other crops.
Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed company, has signed an agreement
to investigate the potential use of the gene for controlling a variety of
caterpillars in commercially grown broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables.
Seminis is based in Saticoy, Calif.
The technology could benefit commercial vegetable producers by lowering the
cost of pesticide inputs, according to Williams. He works at the ARS
Corn Host Plant Resistance Research
Unit at Mississippi State, Miss. Williams and Luthe isolated the protein, a
cysteine proteinase, from cultured tissue of resistant corn plants. Last
November, MSU and ARS received a patent for the gene sequence that encodes the
protein. ARS is the chief scientific agency of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The fall armyworm is a serious pest of corn, especially late-planted corn in
the South. Drought-stricken Texas was particularly hit with high populations of
this pest last year. Estimates of losses to the pest in some years have
exceeded $200 million.
Williams and co-workers have already collaborated with
DeKalb Genetics Corp. of DeKalb, Ill., in
evaluating corn hybrids that possess both natural and bioengineered sources of
resistance to fall armyworms. In lab and field tests, the ARS researchers
evaluated corn hybrids that DeKalb developed using germplasm created and
released by ARS as a source of natural resistance.
Scientific contact: W. Paul Williams, ARS
Crop Science Research
Laboratory, Mississippi State, Miss., phone (601) 325-2735, fax (601)