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Securing Cotton Farmers’ Bt Investment / February 12, 2001 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Photo: A normal, 12-day-old cotton bollworm larva raised on a control diet. Link to photo information

Read: more about Bt in Agricultural Research

Securing Cotton Farmers’ Bt Investment

By Jan Suszkiw
February 12, 2001

Helping cotton farmers prolong Bacillus thuringiensis’ (Bt) effectiveness as a natural pesticide against crop-damaging caterpillars is the aim of Agricultural Research Service studies in Stoneville, Miss.

There, at ARS's Southern Insect Management Research Unit, Dick Hardee and Doug Sumerford are monitoring the ability of tobacco budworms and bollworms to feed and grow on artificial diets containing insecticidal Bt proteins used in transgenic cotton. In U.S. cotton crops, these caterpillar pests cause up to $300 million annually in damages and control costs.

Since 1996, cotton varieties engineered with Bt genes for making the protein have offered growers a way to reduce insecticides. Bt cotton is now grown on 2 million-plus U.S. acres. Because of such extensive plantings of cotton and other Bt crops, there is concern that natural selection will favor insects having traits for Bt resistance.

The researchers have sought to quantify this in budworms and bollworms by obtaining caterpillar specimens from cotton fields across the nation and rearing them to adulthood on Bt- free diets. Once they’ve mated, the insects’ offspring are reared on Bt diets and compared with the lab’s control colonies. This allows scientists to check the insects’ Bt tolerance levels. The more tolerant a caterpillar is, for example, the faster it grows on the Bt diet and the bigger it gets. A sensitive assay also enables scientists to compare genetic differences among Bt-fed insects, based on these physiological cues.

Hardee, Sumerford and John Adamczyk also are:

  • Monitoring Bt insect control differences based on environmental factors, such as soil salinity, and accidental mixing of Bt and non-Bt seed.
  • Comparing Bt expression among different cotton varieties, as well as in different parts of these transgenic plants.
  • Testing cotton having two Bt genes.

Since starting the program, the scientists have noticed no change in their budworm collection’s Bt tolerance. A bollworm assessment is pending more data from the Cotton Belt. A longer story is in Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Scientific contact: D.D. Hardee, ARS Southern Insect Management Research Unit, Stoneville, Miss., phone (662) 686-5231, fax (662) 686-5421, dhardee@ars.usda.gov.

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