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Aphid-like insects named whiteflies took a part of plant DNA into their genome millions of years ago. A team of Chinese researchers revealed in a study published in the journal Cell that whiteflies took advantage of this stolen gene to degrade the toxins plants use to protect themselves against insects, allowing those whiteflies to safely feed on those plants.

Horizontal Gene Transfer From Plant to Insect

This discovery is considered the first recorded proof of horizontal transfer of a functional gene from a plant to an insect, the researchers noted in a report on The Atlantic. No other insect species carry the gene, BtPMaT1, which counteracts the plant's toxic compounds, they added.

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Scientists surmise that plants might have used the BtPMaT1 gene within their own cells to keep their noxious compounds harmlessly so that the plants won't poison themselves. The research team utilized a mix of genetic and phylogenetic analyses to show that around 36 million years back, whiteflies took this protective gene, empowering the insect to detoxify the compounds for their own benefit.

Whiteflies
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons) Whiteflies

Researchers believe a virus within a plant might have taken up the BtPMaT1 gene, and as a whitefly ingested it, the virus might have caused something within the insect that made the gene integrate into the whiteflies' genome. While they know this is highly unlikely, they note that if millions of years and billions of viruses, plants, and individual insects have happened over the years, such a phenomenon could have happened. With the gene's obvious benefits to the insects, such an occurrence should be evolutionarily favored, they emphasized.

Solution to End Whitefly Infestation

Whiteflies have since become a major agricultural pest globally, attacking at least 600 different plant species anywhere in the world. It has been quite a mystery to scientists for these whiteflies to have those incredible adaptations to avoid plant safeguards, and the study's findings provide a sensible answer.

With this knowledge, the research team formulated a strategy to negate the whiteflies' stolen superpower. Researchers developed a small DNA molecule that neutralizes the BtPMaT1 gene in the whiteflies, making them vulnerable to the plant's toxicity.

The team genetically manipulated tomato plants to come up with this RNA molecule, the researchers revealed. As the whiteflies fed on the tomatoes and ingested on the plant-created RNA, the BtPMaT1 was suppressed, leading to a 100% mortality of the insect. However, the genetic modification did not affect the survival of other insects that were studied.

With concentrated efforts to produce genetically modified crops that could suppress the whitefly gene, this can be used for pest control in stopping devastation in farms caused by whiteflies, the Nature journal said.

While there are hurdles, such as the general skepticism on the use of transgenic plants, researchers see it as an effective way to contain whiteflies since containing them is achievable, apart from dealing with possible gene changes that may occur.

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