The shrinking amount of farmland available combined with an ever growing population has prompted members of the agriculture industry to look into different ways they can increase yield, grow crops that resist climate changes, and resist the damaging effects of pests.
Producers of corn, potatoes, and cotton are primarily worried about the damage done by corn borers, potato beetles, and cotton bollworms. One of the measures that scientists have used to reduce the amount of damage done by pests is modifying genes so that the plant is more resistant to the insects, relying primarily on Bt proteins. The Bt proteins helped improve yields, but producers noted that moths continued to damage their crops. Recently, the agriculture industry has also noted that some of the pests have become resistance to the Bt protein.
As researchers continued to look for new ways to protect crops, some decided to explore spider venom and see if the peptides in 950 different spider toxins could keep insects off fields. The venom that showed the most promise is the venom produced by the Hadronyche versuta (funnel web spider), a type of spider that’s native to Australia. Researchers were so pleased with the way insects responded to the funnel spider’s venom, they went to work creating a synthetic version of the specific peptide contained in the venom which they then used to treat tobacco and cotton plants.
Now, if things go according to plan, the genetically modified plants produce the same venom as the funnel spider and do an excellent job repelling an array of insects without being treated with chemical pesticides. The peptin inspired by the spider venom is called Hvt.
The researchers involved in the project couldn’t be more enthused about the experiment. One member of the research team, Glenn King, said the possibilities of using peptides from spider venom could revolutionize agriculture. “It would be a fantastic adjunct to Bt plants because this toxin is effective against a wide range of pests, including aphids, which Bt doesn’t affect at all. This is a completely novel insecticide target . . . so there’s no preexisting resistance.”
A Zurich based research group, Agroscope, used some of the cotton and tobacco plants that now contained Hvt and raised the plants in a greenhouse environment. The setting made it possible for the researchers to control the environment and see how well the Hvt plants repelled an assortment of insects.
The peptides in the modified plants managed to kill the insects that have historically done the greatest amount of damage to cotton and tobacco crops. Equally important, the beneficial insects such as the green lacewing and seven-spot ladybird were able to visit the Hvt positive plants without being harmed.
The more peptide information scientists acquire through research and experiments, the more we can use these natural amino acids to improve life across many industries. From medical care to agriculture, peptides are truly a miraculous option to make life a little better for everyone.