Researchers at Purdue and the University of Illinois have discovered a novel corn mutant whose leaves are highly susceptible to attack by Western corn rootworm beetles, a pest that ordinarily feeds on corn silks and pollen.

While Western corn rootworm beetles were previously thought to avoid corn leaves based on food-source preference, study of the mutant suggests normal corn plants have an active defense mechanism that deters the beetles from feeding on foliage.

Identifying this mechanism could lead to new strategies for controlling Western corn rootworm, which is the most destructive insect pest of corn in the U.S.

 

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"This opens a whole new opportunity to understand more about the mechanism of defense in corn to control this beetle," said Gurmukh Johal, professor of botany and plant pathology. Johal and Stephen Moose of Illinois independently discovered the mutant around the same time.

"In identifying the genetic pathway involved in resistance, we can develop better ways of controlling this pest without having to use insecticides," Johal said.

 

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Western corn rootworm causes more than $1 billion damage a year in yield losses and control costs in the U.S., earning it the nickname ‘the billion-dollar bug.’

The rootworm larvae chew on the roots of corn plants while the adult beetles eat the silks and pollen. Current control measures include crop rotation, transgenic corn plants and insecticides. But a rise in continuous corn systems, increased rootworm resistance to transgenic plants and changes in rootworm behavior have rendered these management strategies less effective.