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article imageNew way to protect maize from pathogens

By Tim Sandle     Jul 10, 2014 in Science
Berna - Many modern crops have lost their ability to produce certain defence chemicals, making them vulnerable to attack by pathogens. Scientists are exploring ways to help protect maize by re-arming it with its ancestral chemical weapons.
A research team have discovered many varieties of maize have lost their ability to produce a chemical called E-β-caryophyllene. This chemical was produced by traditional ancestors of modern maize when the plant came under attack from invading corn rootworms. The chemical attracts "friendly" nematode worms from the surrounding soil which, in turn, kill the corn rootworm larvae within a few days.
Corn rootworm larvae can destroy significant percentages of corn if left untreated. The cycle of the insect begins with eggs, which are deposited in the soil during the summer. Larvae hatch in late May or early June and begin to feed on corn roots. Corn rootworms go through three larval instars, pupate in the soil and emerge as adults in July and August. One generation emerges each year. Western corn rootworms are yellowish with a black stripe on each wing cover.
To find ways to ‘restore’ the defensive chemical, researchers used the technique of genetic transformation. After introducing a gene from oregano, the transformed maize plants released E- β-caryophyllene constantly. As a result, these plants attracted more nematodes and suffered less damage from an infestation of Western Corn Rootworms.
These results show how knowledge of natural plant defenses can be practically applied in agricultural systems. The research team are how considering which other chemical defenses may have been lost during domestication of maize.
The research was led by Dr Ted Turlings (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland).
More about Maize, Pathogens, Corn, Insects, cornworm
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