Absence of toxicity of bacillus thuringiensis pollen to black swallowtails under field conditions

C. L. Wraight, A. R. Zangerl, M. J. Carroll, M. R. Berenbaum

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A single laboratory study on monarch butterflies has prompted widespread concern that corn pollen, engineered to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) endotoxin, might travel beyond corn fields and cause mortality in nontarget lepidopterans. Among the lepidopterans at high potential risk from this technology is the black swallowtail butterfly, Papilio polyxenes, whose host plants in the midwestern U.S. are located principally in narrow strips between roads and crop fields. A field study was performed to assess whether mortality of early instar black swallowtails was associated either with proximity to a field of Bt corn or by levels of Bt pollen deposition on host plants. Potted host plants were infested with first instar black swallowtails and placed at intervals from the edge of a field of Bt corn (Pioneer 34R07 containing Monsanto event 810) at the beginning of anthesis. We confirmed by ELISA that pollen from these plants contained CrylAb endotoxin (2.125 ± 0.289 ng/g). Although many of the larvae died during the 7 days that the experiments were run, there was no relationship between mortality and proximity to the field or pollen deposition on host plants. Moreover, pollen from these same plants failed to cause mortality in the laboratory at the highest pollen dose tested (10,000 grains/cm2), a level that far exceeded the highest pollen density observed in the field (200 grains/cm2). We conclude that Bt pollen of the variety tested is unlikely to affect wild populations of black swallowtails. Thus, our results suggest that at least some potential nontarget effects of the use of transgenic plants may be manageable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7700-7703
Number of pages4
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 5 2000

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