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Crop Biotech Update

Genetic Mutatation Key to Resistance in Cotton Pest

November 14, 2018

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) identifies a dominantly inherited mutation that confers resistance to engineered cotton in caterpillars of the cotton bollworm, one of the world's most destructive crop pests.

Entomologists from the University of Arizona (UA), the University of Tennessee and the Nanjing Agricultural University in China collaborated in this three-part study. Their goals were to identify the mutation conferring Bt resistance in bollworms, precisely edit one bollworm gene to prove this mutation causes resistance, and discover how the resistance is spreading through cotton fields in China, where dominant bollworm resistance to Bt is on the rise.

The researchers compared the DNA of resistant and susceptible bollworms, and narrowed the search from 17,000 genes to a region of just 21 genes associated with resistance. They found that 17 of those genes code for proteins that are produced by the caterpillars. Bruce Tabashnik, Regents' Professor in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Entomology said that there was only one consistent difference in the 17 genes. There is one position where all of the resistant bollworms had one DNA base pair and all of the susceptible bollworms had a different DNA base pair. This pivotal base pair is in a newly identified gene named HaTSPAN1, which codes for a tetraspanin – a protein containing four segments that span cell membranes.

To determine if this single mutation causes resistance, the researchers used the gene editing tool CRISPR to precisely alter only the HaTSPAN1 gene. When the gene was disrupted in resistant bollworms, they became completely susceptible to Bt. Conversely, when the mutation was inserted in the DNA of susceptible bollworms, they became resistant – proving this single base pair change alone causes resistance.

For more details about this research, read the news release from the University of Arizona.