Modern-day farmers are locked in a constant arms race with hungry pests, trying to develop methods of deterring bugs and plants faster than these organisms evolve to resist their attacks. As evolution is a fairly slow process, this usually allows the farmers to come out on top, or at least enough to make a profit on their crop yields. However, there is one particularly crafty bug that seemed to evolve at a much faster rate than normal- an anomaly which bioresearchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign set out to explain.
The pest in question, known as the western corn rootworm, has been puzzling scientists for a while. According to UIUC entomology professor Manfredo Seufferheld,
“This insect has the ability to adapt to practically all control methods deployed against it, including crop rotation. After many years of research about the mechanisms of rotation resistance, results were mostly inconclusive.”
(The western corn rootworm, courtesy Wikimedia Commons and the USDA)
Seufferheld (left, courtesy UIUC) and his team approached the rootworms with a new hypothesis in mind. Perhaps the rootworm itself isn’t actually evolving incredibly fast, but rather is receiving a boost in adaptation from something else. In fact, the rotation-resistant rootworms were found to have a different set of bacteria in their guts than those that were thwarted by crop rotation. To test if these bacteria had any effect on the rootworms’ eating habits, the team killed the unique bacteria with antibiotics. Once that had been done, the rootworms were again susceptible to crop rotation, proving that the bacteria were to blame.
What this means for researchers who make a living combating bugs like the western corn rootworm is that it can take a microbial perspective to combat visible organisms. As the study’s co-author, Joseph Spencer(right, courtesy UIUC), phrases it in a UIUC article,
“I think the realization that pest insects are not alone in their efforts should give us some pause. There is a brand new tiny world out there inside every creature, and we need to start thinking seriously about it.”
Of course, it’s not as if these bacterial communities are a “brand new” phenomenon; however, our understanding of their synergy with insects is still very rudimentary. An interesting new branch of crop protection may be how to fight not just bugs, but the bugs inside the bugs.
This research project was funded in part by the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research and the Illinois Soybean Program Operating Board. For more detailed information on the money behind the research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, see our UIUC Funding Report, accessible via the link below:
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