Insect-resistant transgenic plants in a multi-trophic context


For correspondence (fax: +31 317 484821; email:


So far, genetic engineering of plants in the context of insect pest control has involved insertion of genes that code for toxins, and may be characterized as the incorporation of biopesticides into classical plant breeding. In the context of pesticide usage in pest control, natural enemies of herbivores have received increasing attention, because carnivorous arthropods are an important component of insect pest control. However, in plant breeding programmes, natural enemies of herbivores have largely been ignored, although there are many examples that show that plant breeding affects the effectiveness of biological control. Negative influences of modified plant characteristics on carnivorous arthropods may induce population growth of new, even more harmful pest species that had no pest status prior to the pesticide treatment. Sustainable pest management will only be possible when negative effects on non-target, beneficial arthropods are minimized. In this review, we summarize the effects of insect-resistant crops and insect-resistant transgenic crops, especially Bt crops, from a food web perspective. As food web components, we distinguish target herbivores, non-target herbivores, pollinators, parasitoids and predators. Below-ground organisms such as Collembola, nematodes and earthworms should also be included in risk assessment studies, but have received little attention. The toxins produced in Bt plants retain their toxicity when bound to the soil, so accumulation of these toxins is likely to occur. Earthworms ingest the bound toxins but are not affected by them. However, earthworms may function as intermediaries through which the toxins are passed on to other trophic levels. In studies where effects of insect-resistant (Bt) plants on natural enemies were considered, positive, negative and no effects have been found. So far, most studies have concentrated on natural enemies of target herbivores. However, Bt toxins are structurally rearranged when they bind to midgut receptors, so that they are likely to lose their toxicity inside target herbivores. What happens to the toxins in non-target herbivores, and whether these herbivores may act as intermediaries through which the toxins may be passed on to the natural enemies, remains to be studied.