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Biopesticide-protected crops get unexpected boost

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Insects eat one-third of all food produced worldwide before it ever reaches the dinner table, according to University of Georgia expert Mike Adang.

Since his undergraduate days at Indiana University, the entomology professor has been interested in ways to control insects besides using pesticides. Through his research at UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, he’s found a better, natural way to fight pests.

Adang discovered BtBooster through a series of biopesticide experiments. By adding a bit of an insect protein to a small piece of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein, he learned that it “took less Bt to kill the insects.”

In this case, the insects were hornworms, and originally, Adang expected the experiment to leave them ready and waiting to devour more plants. Instead, it left them dead.

Bt is a biopesticide that produces proteins toxic to many insect species. “It’s a natural bacterium,” Adang said. “It attacks the insect’s gut, making the insect sick.”

However, some insects are resistant to Bt. And that’s where Adang’s surprise comes into play. He and colleagues Gang Hua and John Chen had been hoping to learn how Bt kills insects by feeding them part of an insect protein, the Bt receptor. Instead, they found a way to supercharge Bt and kill the insects faster and with less biopesticide.

And BtBooster was born.

“We were very pleased to see something come from our basic research,” Adang said. “It’s a long way from the lab to making something useful.”

Bt proteins have changed the way crop plants are protected against insects. The technology can be built into a plant like cotton or corn and has been available to farmers since 1996. Vegetables and trees can be protected from insect damage by being sprayed with a biopesticide made from Bt.

Bt provides an alternative to chemical ways of dealing with pests, especially where chemicals could harm humans. Bt doesn’t hurt people. For that reason, foresters can spray whole stands of tree with Bt to fight gypsy moths, which are among North America’s most devastating forest pests.

Organic farmers can use Bt and still be considered organic because biopesticides come from living organisms. They can control the insects on their crops without having to worry about chemical residues.

Though Bt crops are becoming more common, chemicals are still a common way of controlling insects. “Chemical pesticides are still safe,” Adang said. “But over the years, people have started to worry more about problems such as groundwater contamination and other issues like that.”

Through Bt, and now with BtBooster, the potential impact is great as more producers use crops that have been retrofitted with the Bt protein.

“Using BtBooster will allow Bt crops and Bt biopesticides to work better,” Adang said, “having a positive environmental impact and reducing chemical insecticide use.”

Through a National Institutes of Health grant, UGA and his gene design and discovery company InsectiGen, Adang is now studying how Bt kills mosquitoes. Using a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative grant, he’s specifically looking at how insects become resistant to Bt in cotton.

He’s digging deeper into the workings of BtBooster, too, trying to figure out how it works and making improvements to optimize it.

Through UGA’s Georgia BioBusiness Center, Adang formed InsectiGen in 2003 with Clifton Baile, a CAES professor of animal science. Its focus is on discovering and engineering proteins for insect control.

Because of his discovery of BtBooster, he was presented the UGA Inventor’s Award on March 29. He has also filed for a patent license to continue his quest of developing a farm-production product for pest control.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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