Whiteflies are the scourge of many farms, damaging tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other crops. Now, researchers in Britain report that a species of wild tomato is more resistant to the pest than its commercial counterparts.
The wild type, the currant tomato, is closely related to domestic varieties, “so we could crossbreed to introduce the resistance,” said Thomas McDaniel, a biologist and doctoral student at Newcastle University in England and a co-author of the study, published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. “Another method would be genetic engineering, if we identified the genes.”
The researchers studied Trialeurodes vaporariorum, a species of whitefly that often attacks tomatoes grown in greenhouses. Whiteflies damage tomato plants by extracting the plant’s sap, which contains vital nutrients; by leaving a sticky substance on the plant’s surface that attracts mold; and by transmitting viruses through their saliva.
But currant tomatoes have some sort of mechanism, yet to be understood, that repels whiteflies. “They seemed to move away every time they tried to sample the sap,” Mr. McDaniel said.
The wild plants also produce a chemical reaction that causes the plant sap to gum up the whitefly’s feeding tube.
Growers use a parasitic wasp to control whiteflies. The wasp lays its eggs on young whiteflies, which are eaten by hatching larvae. The treatment is expensive and laborious. As an alternative, farmers use chemical pesticides, but some have been linked to declines in bee populations.
“Genetic diversity is very, very low in domestic crops, so introducing these genes that we’ve lost along the way is probably quite important,” Mr. McDaniel said.
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