Insect resistance to transgenic Bt crops: Lessons from the laboratory and field

Bruce E. Tabashnik, Yves Carrière, Timothy J. Dennehy, Shai Morin, Mark S. Sisterson, Richard T. Roush, Anthony M. Shelton, Jian Zhou Zhao

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Transgenic crops that produce insecticidal toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) grew on >62 million ha worldwide from 1996 to 2002. Despite expectations that pests would rapidly evolve resistance to such Bt crops, increases in the frequency of resistance caused by exposure to Bt crops in the field have not yet been documented. In laboratory and greenhouse tests, however, at least seven resistant laboratory strains of three pests (Plutella xylostella [L.], Pectinophora gossypiclla [Saunders], and Helicocerpa annigera [Hübner]) have completed development on Bt crops. In contrast, several other laboratory strains with 70- to 10,100-fold resistance to Bt toxins in diet did not survive on Bt crops. Monitoring of field populations in regions with high adoption of Bt crops has not yet detected increases in resistance frequency. Resistance monitoring examples include Ostrinia nubilalis (Hübner) in the United States (6 yr), P. gossypiella in Arizona (5 yr), H. arinigera in northern China (3 yr), and Hclicocerpa zea (Boddie) in North Carolina (2 yr). Key factors delaying resistance to Bt crops are probably refuges of non-Bt host plants that enable survival of susceptible pests, low initial resistance allele frequencies, recessive inheritance of resistance to Bt crops, costs associated with resistance that reduce fitness of resistant individuals relative to susceptible individuals on non-Bt hosts ("fitness costs"), and disadvantages suffered by resistant strains on Bt hosts relative to their performance on non-Bt hosts ("incomplete resistance"). The relative importance of these factors varies among pest-Bt crop systems, and violations of key assumptions of the refuge strategy (low resistance allele frequency and recessive inheritance) may occur in some cases. The success of Bt crops exceeds expectations of many, but does not preclude resistance problems in the future.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1031-1038
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Economic Entomology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Bacillus thuringiensis
  • Bt crops
  • Genetically modified crops
  • Refuge
  • Resistance


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