A harmful agricultural pest gives success to a Gene taken from its plant host. The finding was reported in Cell, which is the first successful example of a natural gene transfer from a plant to an insect. This research also provides a reason why the whitefly Bemisia tabaci is so adept at feeding on crops: the Gene it takes from plants enables it to neutralize a toxin that some plants produce to defend against insects.
Previous works show that inhibiting this Gene can provide whiteflies vulnerable to the toxin, providing a potential route to combating the pest. Andrew Gloss, who studies plant–pest interactions at the University of Chicago in Illinois said that this exposes the mechanism through which we can tip the scales back in the plant’s flavour.
Youjun Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences with his colleagues researched the whiteflies genome for stolen genes. They found one that seemed to have evolved in plants. Later the study showed that the Gene can transfer a chemical group onto defensive compounds called phenolic glucosides. Such compounds are made by many plants, including tomatoes, to ward off pests. But the modification caused by the whitefly gene rendered the compounds harmless. To test the hypothesis, the team engineered tomato plants to produce a double-stranded RNA molecule capable of shutting down the expression of the whitefly gene. Most whiteflies that fed on these plants died.