An insect pest acquires many plant genes

Silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci). Credit: US Department of Agriculture – Stephen Ausmus

Silverleaf whitefly is a major crop pest in the tropics and subtropics. After studying its genome, the INRAE ​​researcher and the CNRS researcher identified 49 plant genes transferred to the insect’s own genome.

Never before have so many genes been found transferred between plants and insects. These findings open the door to new research into the relationship between plants and insects that could lead to innovative pest control methods and reduce pesticide use.

The war between plants and plant-eating insects goes back millions of years and has drawn both heroes into an arms race. As plants deploy signals and erect physical and chemical barriers, insects develop clever strategies to bypass these barriers. But genes involved in insect adaptations sometimes have surprising origins.

Recent research in 2020 and 2021 showed that two plant genes were transferred into the genome of the silverleaf whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), which with one gene enables the whitefly to neutralize toxins produced by plants as a defense mechanism. Two scientists interested in this finding – one from INRAE ​​and one from CNRS – tried to find out how many plant-derived genes were found in the fully sequenced whitefly genome in 2016. Their current research is published Genome Biology and Evolution

49 plant-derived genes in the insect genome

The researchers performed a bioinformatics analysis and identified 49 plant genes in the whitefly genome resulting from 24 independent horizontal gene transfer events. Most of these genes show features of functionality, that is, they are expressed in insects and have sequences that show signs of evolutionary pressure and therefore have potential roles in insects.

The researchers’ results also show that most of the genes identified, such as those involved in the production of enzymes that break down plant cell walls, play a known role in the relationship between plants and their parasites. This likely reflects the result of natural selection of plant genes in insects, which may have allowed the whitefly to adapt to a wide variety of plant species. The origin and mechanism of these transfers are still unknown, but they all date back several million years.

This is the first time that so much gene transfer between plants and insects has been identified. This research opens the door to new research on plant-pest relationships as well as crop pest control methods. Understanding the role of transgenes for plants and insects can lead to innovative pest control methods based on plant breeding (varietal selection) that can reduce the use of pesticides.

A plant gene in the insect protects it from leaf toxins

Clément Gilbert et al, Multiple horizontal acquisition of plant genes in the whitefly Bemisia tabaci, Genome Biology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1093/gbe/evac141

Walter J. Lapadula et al, Whitefly genomes contain genes encoding plant-derived ribotoxins, Scientific Reports (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-72267-1

Whitefly hijacks plant detoxification gene that neutralizes plant toxins, Jixing Xia et al., Cell (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.02.014

Provided by INRAE ​​- National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment

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