(CN) – Researchers studying wild tomato plants in Peru have found understanding the plants’ evolutionary defense mechanisms could reveal the key to reducing pesticide use worldwide.
Pesticide use is standard in crop production, but it has also sparked contentious debate about its impact on human health and the environment.
Michigan State University researchers said in the study published Wednesday in Science Advances that pesticide use could be reduced by learning from the evolutionary design of a wild tomato plant that survives in one of the harshest environments on earth: the Atacama Desert of Peru.
Researchers traced the evolution of a specific gene of the Solanum pennellii tomato species, which produces a sticky compound in the tiny hair-like trichomes of the plant.
The researchers found the sticky hairs act as natural insect repellants to protect the plant and help ensure that it will survive to reproduce.
MSU plant biochemistry professor Rob Last said in a statement Wednesday the study reveals the gene that exists in the wild tomato plant does not exist in cultivated tomatoes.
“The invertase-like enzyme creates insecticidal compounds not found in the garden-variety tomato,” Last said. “This defensive trait could be bred into modern plants.”
The professor added that contemporary farmers cultivated tomato plants without undesirable traits, such as stickiness, without understanding the insect-repellant qualities of such traits.
Bryan Leong, a plant biology graduate student and co-lead author of the study, said in the statement that the findings on how the wild plants evolved could trigger changes in modern crop production.
“We want to make our current tomatoes adapt to stress like this wild tomato, but we can only do that by understanding the traits that make them resistant,” Leong said, adding that when crop yield increases due to proliferation of pest-resistant plants, the need for insecticides would decrease.
The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, used the latest gene-editing technologies, including the CRISPR tool, to discover the functions of specific genes, metabolites and pathways of the plant.
Cliff Weil of the National Science Foundation said in the statement that researchers hope to apply the evolutionary designs to existing crops.
“Plants are amazing biochemical factories that make many unusual compounds with protective, medicinal and economically important properties,” said Weil. “In this study, the authors found that a common enzyme has been repurposed for forming such compounds, giving us important insight into how life is able to bend existing tools for novel uses.”