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Insights gained from molecular modeling may lead to better insecticides

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- One of the most damaging crop pests, the corn earworm, may be outwitting efforts to control it by making structural changes in a single metabolic protein, but new insights uncovered by molecular modeling could pave the way for more efficient insecticides, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In a study that compared the ability of corn earworms (Helicoverpa zea) and black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) to neutralize insecticides and plant defense allelochemicals that target insect herbivores, researchers focused on the insects primary detoxifying cytochrome P450 enzymes.

The study was published online Monday (Feb. 23) in advance of regular publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earworms, which can feed on hundreds of different kinds of plants, have evolved generalist counter-defense P450 proteins that can process more diverse arrays of harmful agents than can similar proteins in black swallowtails, which consume a restricted diet of only two plant families.

Predictive three-dimensional modeling of the structures of the proteins detoxifying allelochemicals and insecticides has indicated vivid differences in the catalytic sites of CYP6B1, the P450 in black swallowtails, and CYP6B8, the P450 protein in earworms.

Because the corn earworms metabolic protein is more flexible, it can bind to and detoxify six different kinds of plant defense chemicals as well as three common insecticides, said Jerome Baudry, a senior research scientist in the School of Chemical Sciences at Illinois. "This generalist insect has adapted to the natural chemical defenses of plants so that it can feed on a wider variety of plants," he said.

The P450 studied in the specialist is significantly more constrained. It contains a more rigid catalytic pocket that restricts the range of plant chemicals and insecticides that can enter and be
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Contact: Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
jebarlow@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
24-Feb-2004


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