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Engineered Corn Can Kill Monarch Butterflies

ITHACA, N.Y. -- An increasingly popular commercial corn, genetically engineered to produce a bacterial toxin to protect against corn pests, has an unwanted side effect: Its pollen kills monarch butterfly larvae in laboratory tests, according to a report by Cornell University researchers.

Writing in the latest issue (May 20) of the journal Nature, the Cornell researchers note that this hybrid crop, known as Bt-corn, has genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spliced into the plant genes. These hybrids are very effective against the ravenous European corn borer, a major corn pest that is destroyed by the plant's toxic tissue. The engineered corn is safe for human consumption.

Unlike many pesticides, the Bt-corn has been shown to have no effect on many "nontarget" organisms -- pollinators such as honeybees or beneficial predators of pests like ladybugs. But the Bt-modified corn produces pollen containing crystalline endotoxin from the bacterium genes. When this corn pollen is dispersed by the wind, it lands on other plants, including milkweed, the exclusive food of monarch caterpillars and commonly found around cornfields.

Like all grasses, corn is wind-pollinated, and the pollen can be blown more than 60 yards from the edge of cornfields. "Pollen is that yellow dusting your car gets on spring and summer days; pollen is everywhere," says John E. Losey, Cornell assistant professor of entomology and the primary investigator on the study. "That's why we are concerned about this problem."

Other researchers on the study were Linda S. Rayor, Cornell instructor in entomology, and Maureen E. Carter, Cornell research aide.

"Monarchs are considered to be a flagship species for conservation. This is a warning bell," says Rayor. "Monarchs themselves are not an endangered species right now, but as their habitat is disrupted or destroyed, their migratory phenomena is becoming endangered."

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Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander, Jr.
bpf2@cornell.edu
607-255-3290
Cornell University News Service
19-May-1999


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