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Corn Rootworm Resistance to Bt Corn in More Counties
Illinois Ag Connection - 04/09/2014

With the addition of three more counties, a total of five Illinois counties have now reported confirmed cases of field-evolved resistance to Bt corn (Cry3Bb1 protein) by western corn rootworm, and a University of Illinois entomologist said now is the time to move forward aggressively with integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.

In August 2012, in cooperation with an Iowa State University lab, Mike Gray said he confirmed resistance in Henry and Whiteside counties in northwestern Illinois. Working with Joe Spencer of the Illinois Natural History Survey and utilizing single-plant bioassays with larvae collected last summer, Gray said resistance to the Cry3Bb1 protein has now also been confirmed in McDonough, Mercer, and Sangamon counties.

The suspected Bt-resistant larvae collected last summer were exposed to a hybrid expressing the Cry3Bb1 protein as well as its corresponding isoline (not expressing the Cry3Bb1 protein), Gray said. Larvae obtained from three control colonies of western corn rootworms also were used in the bioassays. The control larvae had never been exposed to corn rootworm Bt protein and were provided by the USDA North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, S.D.

Gray said there continues to be some controversy regarding the most appropriate procedures (plant-based vs. diet-based bioassays) that should be used to confirm whether or not resistance to a Bt protein has developed by an insect population. Citing a University of Arizona study that defines key terms regarding resistance to Bt crops and pesticides, Gray offered the following definitions that are useful in communicating with producers who have experienced greater than expected levels of damage to rootworm Bt hybrids in their fields. They include:

-- "Resistance: genetically based decrease in susceptibility to a pesticide"

-- "Field-evolved resistance (= field-selected resistance): genetically based decrease in susceptibility to a pesticide in a population caused by exposure to the pesticide in the field"

-- "Practical resistance (= field resistance): field-evolved resistance that reduces pesticide efficacy and has practical consequences for pest control"

"It has become increasingly evident that some producers have experienced a loss of efficacy with some Bt hybrids in their fields in recent years," Gray said. "To date, most of those fields have been in continuous corn production, and producers have not rotated traits. It's also clear that 'practical consequences' have resulted due to the loss of efficacy associated with some Bt hybrids in problem fields.

"The primary consequence so far has been an escalation in the use of planting-time soil insecticides with Bt rootworm hybrids. This practice may hasten the onset of resistance evolution to Bt proteins as outlined in a paper published last year," he added.

Other consequences of the evolution of practical resistance by the western corn rootworm has been the increased use of pyramided Bt hybrids, the use of seed blends as a primary refuge strategy, and a reduction in the size of the required refuge -- from 20 percent to 5 percent for some products.

"The reduction in the refuge size remains troubling for many entomologists, especially in areas of the Corn Belt where resistance has been confirmed to one of the rootworm Bt proteins. Although a seed blend offers many advantages, including ensured compliance as well as improving the chances that Bt-susceptible and resistant adults will mate, increased selection pressure on the one effective Bt protein within a compromised pyramid, may be a primary consequence of a 5 percent refuge," he said.

To date, four Bt rootworm proteins have been registered for use in the United States: Cry3Bb1, Cry34/35Ab1, mCry3A, and most recently eCry3.1Ab. Gray said that Aaron Gassmann (Iowa State University) and his colleagues recently published a paper in which they confirmed the field evolution of resistance to the mCry3A protein. In the same journal article, they also confirmed cross-resistance between Cry3Bb1 and mCry3A proteins.

"These findings are troubling from many perspectives. For instance, pyramided Bt hybrids that are used in areas of the Corn Belt where practical resistance to the Cry3Bb1 and mCry3A proteins is a reality, may in fact be relying to a great extent upon the efficacy of Cry34/35Ab1 or eCry3.1Ab to ensure adequate root protection -- again, at reduced refuge size requirements (5 percent)," he said.

Last summer, Gray reported on the failure of some Bt hybrids (Cry3Bb1) to provide adequate root protection in rotated corn in Kankakee and Livingston counties. Spencer will conduct plant-based bioassays on the offspring reared from the adults collected from these fields. Results from these bioassays will be in later this year.

"If the results confirm resistance to the Cry3Bb1 protein, it seems clear that a segment of the western corn rootworm population can now overcome rotation and this protein. With cross-resistance within this population to the mCry3A protein a possibility, we begin to see how diminished our IPM tool box is for this insect pest," Gray explained.

"As I have done in the past, I urge producers to implement a long-term integrated pest management approach for corn rootworms. This includes the use of multiple tactics (over time, not all in the same season), such as: use of a more diverse crop rotation system, use of a non-Bt hybrid in conjunction with a planting-time soil insecticide, rotation of pyramided Bt hybrids, and consideration of an adult suppression program in heavily infested fields," he said.

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