Scientists Observe How The Insect Tomato Defends Itself

Stewart Gasper

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Stewart Gasper

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    Wild tomato is able to create its own insecticide. Researchers at Michigan State University have identified an evolutionary function in these plants that could help develop pest resistant crops. The study tracked the evolution of a specific gene that produces a sticky compound at the tips of the trichomes or hairs, at the Solanum pennellii plant that is found in the Atacama desert in Peru, one of the toughest environments on Earth. These sticky hairs act as natural insect repellents to protect the plant, which helps ensure they survive to reproduce.

    The gene found only exists in the wild plant, not in cultivated tomatoes, according to Rob Last, professor of plant biochemistry at that university. “The enzyme creates insecticidal compounds that are not found in the garden variety tomato, but could be applied to modern plants.” The possibility of transmitting this defensive trait would allow crops resistant to pests without the need to spray the field with insecticides, which would significantly increase their yield.

    Bryan Leong, co-author of the study, says that the interesting thing now is to know how these plants evolved to be resistant to insects and then get the current tomatoes to adapt equally to stress. Technological advances have allowed the team to apply genetic and genomic approaches, including CRISPR gene editing technology, to the wild tomato plant to discover the functions of specific genes, metabolites and pathways.

    Using these new techniques, the team identified an enzyme type invertase (sucrose) specific for the cells at the tips of the sticky hairs. These enzymes regulate many aspects of growth and development. “The plants are incredible biochemical factories that produce many unusual compounds with protective, medicinal and economically important properties,” says Cliff Weil, director of programs at the National Science Foundation, which funded this study recently published in Science Advances.