Despite evidence suggesting a role in plant defence, the use of plant lectins in crop protection has been hindered by their low and species-specific insecticidal activity. Snowdrop lectin (Galanthus nivalis agglutinin; GNA) is transported to the haemolymph of insects after oral ingestion, and can be used as a basis for novel insecticides. Recombinant proteins containing GNA expressed as a fusion with a peptide or protein, normally only toxic when injected into the insect haemolymph, have the potential to show oral toxicity as a result of GNA-mediated uptake.
A gene encoding a toxin, ButaIT, from the red scorpion (Mesobuthus tamulus) was synthesised and assembled into expression constructs. One construct contained ButaIT alone, whereas the other contained ButaIT fused N-terminally to a GNA polypeptide (ButaIT/GNA). Both recombinant proteins were produced using the yeast Pichia pastoris as an expression host, and purified. Recombinant ButaIT and ButaIT/GNA were acutely toxic when injected into larvae of tomato moth (Lacanobia oleracea), causing slow paralysis, leading to mortality or decreased growth. ButaIT/GNA was chronically toxic when fed to L. oleracea larvae, causing decreased survival and weight gain under conditions where GNA alone was effectively non-toxic. Intact ButaIT/GNA was detected in larval haemolymph from insects fed the fusion protein orally, demonstrating transport of the linked polypeptide across the gut. Proteolysis of the fusion protein was also observed. ButaIT/GNA was significantly more toxic that GNA alone when fed to the homopteran Nilaparvata lugens (rice brown planthopper) in liquid artificial diet.
The ButaIT/GNA recombinant fusion protein is toxic to lepidopteran larvae both when injected and when fed orally, showing the utility of GNA as a carrier to transport potentially toxic peptides and proteins across the insect gut. Although ButaIT has been claimed to be lepidopteran-specific, the fusion protein has more wide-ranging insecticidal activity. Fusion proteins based on plant lectins have potential applications in crop protection, both as exogenously applied treatments and as endogenous products in transgenic plants.