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Bacillus thuringiensis
Spores and bipyramidal crystals of Bacillus thuringiensis morrisoni strain T08025
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Eubacteria
Phylum: Firmicutes
Class: Bacilli
Order: Bacillales
Family: Bacillaceae
Genus: Bacillus
Species: thuringiensis
Binomial name
Bacillus thuringiensis
Berliner 1915

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a Gram-positive, soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a pesticide. Additionally , B. thuringiensis also occurs naturally in the gut of caterpillars of various types of moths and butterflies, as well as on the dark surface of plants.[1]


Discovery and study

B. thuringiensis was first discovered in 1901 by Japanese biologist Shigetane Ishiwata. In 1911 it was rediscovered in Germany by Ernst Berliner, who isolated it as the cause of a disease called Schlaffsucht in flour moth caterpillars. In 1976, Zakharyan reported the presence of a plasmid in a strain of B. thuringiensis and suggested its involvement in endospore and crystal formation.[2][3] B. thuringiensis is closely related to B.cereus, a soil bacterium, and B.anthracis, the cause of anthrax: the three organisms differ mainly in their plasmids. Like other members of the genus, all three are aerobes capable of producing endospores.[1] Upon sporulation, B. thuringiensis forms crystals of proteinaceous insecticidal δ-endotoxins (called crystal proteins or Cry proteins), which are encoded by cry genes.[4] In most strains of B. thuringiensis the cry genes are found within the bacterias plasmid.[5][6][7]

Cry toxins have specific activities against species of the orders Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Diptera (flies and mosquitoes), Coleoptera (beetles), hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants and sawflies) and nematodes. Thus, B. thuringiensis serves as an important reservoir of Cry toxins and cry genes for production of biological insecticides and insect-resistant genetically modified crops. When insects ingest toxin crystals the alkaline pH of their digestive tract causes the toxin to become activated. It becomes inserted into the insect's gut cell membranes forming a pore resulting in swelling, cell lysis and eventually killing the insect.[8][9]

Use in pest control

Spores and crystalline insecticidal proteins produced by B. thuringiensis have been used to control insect pests since the 1920s.[10] They are now used as specific insecticides under trade names such as Dipel and Thuricide. Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humans, wildlife, pollinators, and most other beneficial insects. The Belgian company Plant Genetic Systems was the first company (in 1985) to develop genetically engineered (tobacco) plants with insect tolerance by expressing cry genes from B. thuringiensis.[11][12]

B. thuringiensis-based insecticides are often applied as liquid sprays on crop plants, where the insecticide must be ingested to be effective. It is thought that the solubilized toxins form pores in the midgut epithelium of susceptible larvae. Recent research has suggested that the midgut bacteria of susceptible larvae are required for B. thuringiensis insecticidal activity.[13]

Bacillus thuringiensis serovar israelensis, a strain of B. thuringiensis is widely used as a larvicide against mosquito larvae, where it is also considered an environmentally friendly method of mosquito control.

Genetic engineering for pest control

Bt-toxins present in peanut leaves (bottom image) protect it from extensive damage caused by European corn borer larvae (top image).[14]


Bt crops (in corn and cotton) were planted on 281,500 km² in 2006 (165,600 km² of Bt corn and 115900 km² of Bt cotton). This was equivalent to 11.1% and 33.6% respectively of global plantings of corn and cotton in 2006.[15] Claims of major benefits to farmers, including poor farmers in developing countries, have been made by advocates of the technology, and have been challenged by opponents. The task of isolating impacts of the technology is complicated by the prevalence of biased observers, and by the rarity of controlled comparisons (such as identical seeds, differing only in the presence or absence of the Bt trait, being grown in identical situations). The main Bt crop being grown by small farmers in developing countries is cotton, and a recent exhaustive review of findings on Bt cotton by respected and unbiased agricultural economists concluded that "the overall balance sheet, though promising, is mixed. Economic returns are highly variable over years, farm type, and geographical location" .[16]

Environmental impacts appear to be positive during the first ten years of Bt crop use (1996–2005). One study concluded that insecticide use on cotton and corn during this period fell by 35.6 million kg of insecticide active ingredient which is roughly equal to the amount of pesticide applied to arable crops in the EU in one year. Using the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) measure of the impact of pesticide use on the environment,[17] the adoption of Bt technology over this ten year period resulted in 24.3% and 4.6% reduction respectively in the environmental impact associated with insecticide use on the cotton and corn area using the technology.[15]


There are several advantages in expressing Bt toxins in transgenic Bt crops:

  • The level of toxin expression can be very high thus delivering sufficient dosage to the pest.
  • The toxin expression is contained within the plant system and hence only those insects that feed on the crop perish.
  • The toxin expression can be modulated by using tissue-specific promoters, and replaces the use of synthetic pesticides in the environment. The latter observation has been well documented worldwide.[15]

Health and safety

Overall, Bt-modified crops appear to be safe for farmers and consumers.[18] The proteins produced by Bt have been used in sprays for agricultural weed control in France since 1938 and the USA since 1958 with seemingly no ill effects on the environment or human health.[19]

Bt toxins are considered environmentally friendly by many farmers and may be a potential alternative to broad spectrum insecticides. The toxicity of each Bt type is limited to one or two insect orders, and is nontoxic to vertebrates and many beneficial arthropods. The reason is that Bt works by binding to the appropriate receptor on the surface of midgut epithelial cells. Any organism that lacks the appropriate receptors in its gut cannot be affected by Bt.[20][21]

There is clear evidence from laboratory settings that Bt toxins can affect non-target organisms. Usually, but not always, affected organisms are closely related to intended targets [22]. Typically, exposure occurs through the consumption of plant parts such as pollen or plant debris, or through Bt ingested by their predatory food choices. Nevertheless, due to significant data gaps, the real-world consequences of Bt transgenics remains unclear.

Not all scientific reports on Bt safety have been positive. A 2007 study funded by the European arm of Greenpeace, suggested the possibility of a slight but statistically meaningful risk of liver damage in rats.[23] While small statistically significant changes may have been observed, statistical differences are both probable and predictable in animal studies of this kind,(known as Type I errors), that is, the probability of finding a false-positive due to chance alone. In this case, the number of positive results was within the statistically predicted range for Type I errors.

The observed changes have been found to be of no biological significance by the European Food Safety Authority.[24] A 2008 Austrian study investigating the usefulness of a long-term reproduction mouse model for GM crop safety reported that Bt-treated corn consumption in mice appeared to be correlated with reduced fertility via an unknown biochemical mechanism.[25]

Limitations of Bt crops

Kenyans examining insect-resistant transgenic Bt corn.

Constant exposure to a toxin creates evolutionary pressure for pests resistant to that toxin. Already, a Diamondback moth population is known to have acquired resistance to Bt in spray form (i.e., not engineered) when used in organic agriculture.[26] The same researcher has now reported the first documented case of pest resistance to biotech cotton.[27][28]

One method of reducing resistance is the creation of non-Bt crop refuges to allow some non-resistant insects to survive and maintain a susceptible population. To reduce the chance that an insect would become resistant to a Bt crop, the commercialization of transgenic cotton and maize in 1996 was accompanied with a management strategy to prevent insects from becoming resistant to Bt crops, and insect resistance management plans are mandatory for Bt crops planted in the USA and other countries. The aim is to encourage a large population of pests so that any genes for resistance are greatly diluted. This technique is based on the assumption that resistance genes will be recessive.

This means that with sufficiently high levels of transgene expression, nearly all of the heterozygotes (S/s), the largest segment of the pest population carrying a resistance allele, will be killed before they reach maturity, thus preventing transmission of the resistance gene to their progenies.[29] The planting of refuges (i. e., fields of non-transgenic plants) adjacent to fields of transgenic plants increases the likelihood that homozygous resistant (s/s) individuals and any surviving heterozygotes will mate with susceptible (S/S) individuals from the refuge, instead of with other individuals carrying the resistance allele. As a result, the resistance gene frequency in the population would remain low.

Nevertheless, there are limitations that can affect the success of the high-dose/refuge strategy. For example, expression of the Bt gene can vary. For instance, if the temperature is not ideal this stress can lower the toxin production and make the plant more susceptible. More importantly, reduced late-season expression of toxin has been documented, possibly resulting from DNA methylation of the promoter.[30] So, while the high-dose/refuge strategy has been successful at prolonging the durability of Bt crops, this success has also had much to do with key factors independent of management strategy, including low initial resistance allele frequencies, fitness costs associated with resistance, and the abundance of non-Bt host plants that have supplemented the refuges planted as part of the resistance management strategy.[31]

Insect resistance

In November 2009, Monsanto scientists found that the pink bollworm had become resistant to Bt cotton in parts of Gujarat, India. In four regions, Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot the crop is no longer effective at killing the pests. This was the first instance of Bt resistance that was confirmed by Monsanto anywhere in the world.[32]

Secondary pests

Chinese farmers have found that after seven years of growing BT cotton the populations of other insects other than bollworms, such as mirids, have become significant problems.[33]. Similar problems but with mealy bugs have been reported in India[34][35].

Possible problems

Lepidopteran toxicity

The most publicised problem associated with Bt crops is the claim that pollen from Bt maize could kill the monarch butterfly.[36] This report was puzzling because the pollen from most maize hybrids contains much lower levels of Bt than the rest of the plant[37] and led to multiple follow-up studies.

It appears that the initial study was flawed by faulty pollen-collection procedure; researchers fed non-toxic pollen mixed with anther walls containing Bt toxin.[38] The weight of the evidence is that Bt crops do not pose a risk to the monarch butterfly.[39]

Wild maize genetic contamination

A study in Nature reported that Bt-containing maize genes was contaminating maize in its center of origin.[40] Nature later "concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper."[41] However, there still remains a controversy over the highly unorthodox retraction on the part of Nature [42][43]. In 1998, Chapela, one of the original paper's authors spoke out against Berkeley accepting a multi-million dollar research grant from the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Novartis.[42]

A subsequent large-scale study, in 2005, failed to find any evidence of contamination in Oaxaca.[44] However, further research confirmed initial findings concerning contamination of natural maize by transgenic maize.[45]

However, further studies, such as that published in Molecular Ecology in 2008, have shown some small-scale (about 1%) genetic contamination (by the 35S promoter) in sampled fields in Mexico[46][47]. One meta-study has found evidence for and against Bt contamination of maize, concluding that the preponderance of evidence points to Bt maize contamination in Mexico.[48]

Possible link to Colony Collapse Disorder

As of 2007, a new phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is affecting bee hives all over North America. Initial speculation on possible causes ranged from cell phone and pesticide use[49] to the use of Bt resistant transgenic crops.[50] The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium published a report in March 2007 that found no evidence that pollen from Bt crops is adversely affecting bees.[51] The actual cause of CCD remains unknown, and scientists believe that it may have multiple causes.[52]

See also


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  3. ^ Thomas Clement Cheng,(1984) Pathogens of invertebrates: application in biological control and transmission mechanisms, Society for Invertebrate Pathology Meeting Volume 7 page 159 [1]
  4. ^ Circkmore N. "Bacillus thuringiensis toxin nomenclature". Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  5. ^ Stahly D.P (1984). "Biochemical Genetics of the Bacterial Insect-Control Agent Bacillus thuringiensis: Basic Principles and Prospects Engineering.". Biotechnol. Genet. Eng. Rev. 84: 341–63. ISSN 0264-8725. 
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  10. ^ Lemaux, Peggy (February 19, 2008). "Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist's Analysis of the Issues (Part I)". Annual Review of Plant Biology 59: 771–812. doi:10.1146/annurev.arplant.58.032806.103840 (inactive 2009-11-14). PMID 18284373. Retrieved 9 May 2009. 
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  12. ^ Vaeck M, Reynaerts A, Hofte A (1987). "Transgenic plants protected from insect attack". Nature 328: 33–7. doi:10.1038/328033a0. 
  13. ^ Broderick NA, Raffa KF, Handelsman J (October 2006). "Midgut bacteria required for Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal activity". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103 (41): 15196–9. doi:10.1073/pnas.0604865103. PMID 17005725. PMC 1622799. 
  14. ^ Jan Suszkiw (November 1999.). "Tifton, Georgia: A Peanut Pest Showdown". Agricultural Research magazine. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
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  19. ^ "History of Bt". University of Californis. Retrieved 8 February 2010. 
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  21. ^ Knowles BH (1994). "Mechanism of action of Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal delta-endotoxins". Advances in Insect Physiology 24: 275–308. doi:10.1016/S0065-2806(08)60085-5. 
  22. ^ Lovei and Arpaia 2005 and Hilbeck and Schmidt 2006
  23. ^ Séralini GE, Cellier D, de Vendomois JS (May 2007). "New analysis of a rat feeding study with a genetically modified maize reveals signs of hepatorenal toxicity". Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 52 (4): 596–602. doi:10.1007/s00244-006-0149-5. PMID 17356802. 
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  32. ^ Bt cotton ineffective against pest in parts of Gujarat, admits Monsanto - The Hindu March 6 2010
  33. ^ Susan Lang, Cornell Chronicle "Profits die for Bt cotton in China" Retrieved on 2009-4-6
  34. ^ Bhaskar Goswami, InfoChange "Making a meal of Bt cotton" Retrieved on 2009-4-6
  35. ^ India Times "Bug makes meal of Punjab cotton, whither Bt magic?" Retrieved on 2009-4-6
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  41. ^ Kaplinsky N, Braun D, Lisch D, Hay A, Hake S, Freeling M (April 2002). "Biodiversity (Communications arising): maize transgene results in Mexico are artefacts". Nature 416 (6881): 601–2; discussion 600, 602. doi:10.1038/nature739. PMID 11935145. 
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  44. ^ Ortiz-García S, Ezcurra E, Schoel B, Acevedo F, Soberón J, Snow AA (August 2005). "Absence of detectable transgenes in local landraces of maize in Oaxaca, Mexico (2003-2004)". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102 (35): 12338–43. doi:10.1073/pnas.0503356102. PMID 16093316. PMC 1184035. 
  45. ^ PIÑEYRO-NELSON, A.; VAN HEERWAARDEN, J.2; PERALES, H. R.; SERRATOS-HERNÁNDEZ, J. A.; RANGEL, A.; HUFFORD, M. B.; GEPTS, P.; GARAY-ARROYO, A.; RIVERA-BUSTAMANTE, R.; ÁLVAREZ-BUYLLA, E. R.; "Transgenes in Mexican maize: molecular evidence and methodological considerations for GMO detection in landrace populations." in Molecular Ecology ; Feb2009, Vol. 18 Issue 4, p750-761, 12p
  46. ^
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  49. ^ "ARS : Questions and Answers: Colony Collapse Disorder". ARS News. 2008-05-29. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  50. ^ Latsch G (2007-03-22). "Are GM Crops Killing Bees?". Spiegel (International).,1518,473166,00.html. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  51. ^ Galen P. Dively (2007-3-28). [ "SUMMARY OF RESEARCH ON THE NON-TARGET EFFECTS OF BT CORN POLLEN ON HONEYBEES"]. Retrieved 2010-1-12. 
  52. ^ 'No proof' of bee killer theory

External links


Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikispecies


Main Page
Superregnum: Bacteria
Regnum: Bacteria
Phylum: Firmicutes
Classis: Bacilli
Ordo: Bacillales
Familia: Bacillaceae
Genus: Bacillus
Species group: Bacillus cereus group
Species: Bacillus thuringiensis
Strain: Bacillus thuringiensis serovar konkukian - Bacillus thuringiensis str. Al Hakam -



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