Bitten Plants Deploy Gut-Rotting Enzyme. (Corn Defenses)
Milius, S., Science News
Some corn varieties that arose on the Caribbean island of Antigua defend themselves with chemical attacks that leave insect gut linings in tatters.
When armyworm caterpillars make the mistake of chewing on some of this corn, they don't grow well, reaching only half the weight of counterparts that consume less gut-wrenching corn, says Dawn S. Luthe of Mississippi State University. Now, she and her colleagues propose at least one reason why.
Corn plants under attack quickly accumulate a cysteine protease--a protein-slicing enzyme--surrounding the location where the caterpillars are chewing. In an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report microscope observations of the sorry state of the innards of insects that had digested enzyme-laced corn tissue.
"That's pretty novel," comments Clarence Ryan of Washington State University in Pullman, another specialist in built-in plant weaponry. Although chemical defenses are common in the plant world, Ryan says he hadn't heard of an enzyme of this particular class being deployed that way.
Luthe explains that the toxins from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), now widely engineered into commercial crops, also attack insect guts. But Bt toxins do their damage differently. She says that the new enzyme doesn't knock out insects fast enough to substitute for Bt toxins. However, she speculates that combining the protease with other defenses could make a pesticide to which it would be hard for insects to develop resistance. …