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Rootworms Gave Everyone a Lesson in Natural Selection, Evolved Immunity to Toxic GMO Corn

We're simply saying that life, uh, finds a way.



Just like the start of pretty much every science fiction movie in existence, scientists’ warnings were ignored, and companies planting GMO corn unwittingly made themselves a very apparent demonstration of natural selection. The corn is toxic to beetle larvae that would usually eat it. Or at least it was before they evolved an immunity.

“Bt corn,” so named for the Bacillus thuringiensis gene that allows it to produce a toxin to ward of rootworms, has been effectively keeping the hordes of hungry little beetle larvae at bay since 1996, but it finally pushed the insect populations too far. Now, nature has asserted its dominance and reminded us not to mess with it.

Since around the turn of the century, scientists have been warning farms using the Bt corn that they need to put measures in place to make sure rootworm beetles who are resistant to the toxin don’t become too prominent in the gene pool. Those methods include setting up refuge areas of regular corn for beetles with weaker constitutions to thrive and rotating crops, but who listens to those nerds anyway?

It turns out someone should’ve, because rootworm populations with immunity to the toxin are growing rapidly. In a study about the growth of the Bt immune population published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists warn that new, stricter measures will be needed if we want to keep the population under control.

That’s probably a good idea, since rootworms used to cause billions of dollars in damage to corn crops before the Bt corn was introduced, so it would would be pretty unfortunate if they started ravaging crops unchecked again.

Maybe we should just engineer the beetles to have a dependency upon lysine or make sure they’re all female. I mean, that worked out super great in Jurassic Park, right?

(via Wired, image via Jimmy Smith)

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Dan is a video game modding hobbyist and secret ninja who lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa Brown, and his dog, Liz Lemon, both of whom are the best.