The war between plants and animals is not fair. There are facilities for the movement of animals for a start. Horizontal gene transfer is a common process in bacteria, where the genes of one species linked another, such as antibiotic resistance, as if it were their own. This ability to share genes is one reason why bacterial infections can be so difficult to beat.
Surrounded by plants with more advanced reproductive processes, ferns share genes to a surprising degree, contributing to their survival. Animals known to have inherited genes from symbiotic bacteria, but not from plants, so scientists at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences were surprised to find a plant gene in whiteflies. These agricultural pests pose a particular threat to greenhouses because they are mostly small so they can trap their predators where they cannot breed quickly.
“If you neutralize toxic compounds produced by plants of any other insect species, BTPMAT1 will not find this gene.” Neuchâtel University professor Ted Turlings said in a statement. “This seems to be the first recorded example of the horizontal gene transfer of a functional gene from a plant to an insect.” Developing your own antidote to poison and stealing it from your enemies does not seem like the smartest plan to fall into it. It thought, however, that BTPMAT1 needed to avoid poisoning the plants themselves in their own toxins. This was great until whiteflies as if aphids came and incorporated the gene into their own DNA.
Whiteflies make up the family Aleyrodidae, which contains more than 1,500 species but not all have the BTPMAT1 gene. Turlings and co-authors suspect that the gene was transferred about 35 million years ago, but when the sweet potato whiteness (Bemisia tabaci) was 82 million years ago, the gene holder is now distinguished from others. It is difficult to credit the direct transfer of plant genes to any animal. Instead; “We think a virus in plants adopted this BTPMAT1 gene, and after being ingested by a whitefly, the virus must have done something inside the insect that caused the gene to integrate into the whiteflies genome,” Turlings said.
He acknowledged the impossibility of this sequence of events, especially since the virus probably did not benefit from the gene and did not keep it for long. Yet, whiteflies, viruses and the plants they eat are so plentiful that even very rare things happen now and then. Considering their insect status, there is a market for something that could make even some whiteflies less harmful, and the co-authors of the Turlings think they have an answer. They have genetically manipulated to create a small RNA molecule that inhibits BTPMAT1, releasing phenolic glycosides that act as one of the most common proteins in plants. Whiteflies fed on engineered tomatoes had a 100 percent mortality rate. People can still maintain the balance of unjust warfare.
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