News last update:6 Aug 2012

Natural enzyme may protects corn

Furnishing corn plants with genes for producing the enzyme b-N-acetyl hexosaminidase (NAHA) may offer a way to fend off mould-spreading caterpillars and beetles, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) studies suggest.

After hatching from eggs, fall armyworm caterpillars feed on corn plant leaves before advancing on the ears, where succulent kernels await. Other caterpillars and beetle pests feed there, too. When husks are chewed open, kernels can become exposed to mycotoxin-producing fungi. Insecticide spraying within label recommendations helps prevent such feeding and contamination. But the practice can be costly to use and harmful to beneficial insects.

Modified strains of corn
As a possible alternative, ARS scientists Pat Dowd, Eric Johnson and Scott Pinkerton are testing modified strains of corn that produce NAHA throughout the crop plant's tissues. In laboratory trials at the ARS National Centre for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., 100% of newly hatched fall armyworms that ingested NAHA-containing leaf tissue from some of the modified corn plants being studied died within three days.

Mycotoxin protection
The team's examination of NAHA and other enzymes like it is part of a broader effort at the ARS center to develop novel ways of shielding corn from mycotoxin contamination, which costs farmers and processors millions of dollars annually in losses. Of particular interest is determining effective combinations of corn-derived genes that confer insect-resistance levels equal to those in corn containing the biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), but that act against a wider range of pests.

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