Research news

New bioinsecticides for controlling plant pests

Western corn rootworm (left) and Colorado potato beetle (right). Photo: mag. Špela Modic.

Publish Date: 11.01.2021

Category: Interdisciplinary research, Our contribution to sustainable development goals

Sustainable development goals: 2 Zero hunger (Indicators)

 Researchers from the Biotechnical faculty (BF), Agricultural Institute of Slovenia (AIS) and Medical faculty (MF) discovered new proteinaceous bioinsecticides with selective toxicity against two economically most important coleopteran pests, the western corn rootworm and the Colorado potato beetle.

 The western corn rootworm and the Colorado potato beetle cause annual economic losses of over 1 billion dollars in the USA. These plant pests are generally controlled by chemical insecticides that can accumulate in the environment and can have harmful effects to non-target organisms including humans. In addition, transgenic corn hybrids that express proteinaceous Cry toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (e.g., Bt maize) are used to control the western corn rootworm. Cry toxins exert their insecticidal effects through binding to protein receptors in the insect's midgut epithelium. Consequently, insects continuously develop resistance to Bt maize through different mechanisms, one of the most prominent being the alteration of protein receptor molecules. The search for alternative biopesticides and approaches is therefore of extreme importance.

The research group from the BF (prof. Kristina Sepčić (project leader), dr. Anastasija Panevska, prof. Peter Maček, dr. Matej Skočaj, dr. Maja Grundner, dr. Maruša Novak, dr. Vesna Hodnik and students Ivana Pavlic, Miki Zarić and Sara Podržaj), from AIS (dr. Jaka Razinger, mag. Špela Modic) and from MF (prof. Peter Veranič, dr. Nataša Resnik) have recently described the molecular mechanism of action, and the use of protein complexes deriving from the fungal genus Pleurotus (oyster mushrooms) for controlling the western corn rootworm and the Colorado potato beetle. These protein complexes strongly bind to the insect-specific membrane lipid in the insect midgut, and consequently form transmembrane pores that permeabilize the gut cells and lead to the insect death. Importantly, due to their interactions with their specific insect membrane lipid receptor, and not with pest proteins that can be prone to mutation, the chances that these insects can evolve resistance to these insecticidal protein complexes should be significantly lower. These protein complexes are also safe for humans and for the environment. The research was financed by the Slovenian Research Agency (project grants J4-7162 and J4-1772).

The invention is protected by the international patent application thanks to the help of experts from the Knowledge Transfer offices of UL and AIS. The invention has been awarded in several occasions (best scientific paper in the field of Biotechnic within the call “Excellent in Science”, award of the AIS Scientific board, Falling Walls competition Slovenia (2nd place), Rector's award (3rd place), presentation at the BFestival).

Source: Panevska A, Hodnik V, Skočaj M, Novak M, Modic Š, Pavlic I, Podržaj S, Zarić M, Resnik N, Maček P, Veranič P, Razinger J, Sepčić K. Pore-forming protein complexes from Pleurotus mushrooms kill western corn rootworm and Colorado potato beetle through targeting membrane ceramide phosphoethanolamine. Sci Rep. 2019 Mar 25;9(1):5073. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-41450-4.

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