"The pyramid strategy has been touted mostly on the basis of simulation models," said Carrière. "We tested the underlying assumptions of the models in lab experiments with a major pest of corn and cotton. The results provide empirical data that can help to improve the models and make the crops more durable."
One critical assumption of the pyramid strategy is that the crops provide redundant killing, Carrière explained.
"Redundant killing can be achieved by plants producing two toxins that act in different ways to kill the same pest," he said, "so, if an individual pest has resistance to one toxin, the other toxin will kill it."
In the real world, things are a bit more complicated, Carrière's team found out. Thierry Brévault, a visiting scientist from France, led the lab experiments at the UA. His home institution, the Center for Agricultural Research for Development, or CIRAD, is keenly interested in factors that could affect pest resistance to Bt crops in Africa.
"We obviously can't release resistant insects into the field, so we breed them in the lab and bring in the crop plants to do feeding experiments," Carrière said. For their experiments, the group collected cotton bollworm – also known as corn earworm or Helicoverpa zea –, a species of moth that is a major agricultural pest, and selected it for resistance against one of the Bt toxins, Cry1Ac.
As expected, the resistant caterpillars survived after munching on cotton plants producing only that toxin. The surprise came when Carrière's team put them on pyramided Bt cotton containing Cry2Ab in addition to Cry1Ac.
If the assumption of redundant killing is correct, caterpillars resistant to the first toxin should survive on one-toxin plants, but not on two-toxin plants, because the second toxin should kill them, Carrière explained.
"But on the two-toxin plants, the caterpillars selected for resistance to one toxin survived significantly better than caterpillars from a susceptible strain."
These findings show that the crucial assumption of redundant killing does not apply in this case and may also explain the reports indicating some field populations of cotton bollworm rapidly evolved resistance to both toxins, researchers say.