Transgenic Bt plants decompose less in soil than non-Bt plants

S. Flores, D. Saxena, G. Stotzky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bt plants are plants that have been genetically modified to express the insecticidal proteins (e.g. Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac, Cry3A) from subspecies of the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), to kill lepidopteran pests that feed on corn, rice, tobacco, canola, and cotton and coleopteran pests that feed on potato. The biomass of these transgenic Bt plants (Bt+) was decomposed less in soil than the biomass of their near-isogenic non-Bt plant counterparts (Bt-). Soil was amended with 0.5, 1, or 2% (wt wt-1) ground, dried (50°C) leaves or stems of Bt corn plants; with 0.5% (wt wt-1) ground, dried biomass of Bt rice, tobacco, canola, cotton, and potato plants; with biomass of the near-isogenic plants without the respective cry genes; or not amended. The gross metabolic activity of the soil was determined by CO 2 evolution. The amounts of C evolved as CO2 were significantly lower from soil microcosms amended with biomass of Bt plants than of non-Bt plants. This difference occurred with stems and leaves from two hybrids of Bt corn, one of which had a higher C:N ratio than its near-isogenic non-Bt counterpart and the other which had essentially the same C:N ratio, even when glucose, nitrogen (NH4NO3), or glucose plus nitrogen were added with the biomass. The C:N ratios of the other Bt plants (including two other hybrids of Bt corn) and their near-isogenic non-Bt counterparts were also not related to their relative biodegradation. Bt corn had a significantly higher lignin content than near-isogenic non-Bt corn. However, the lignin content of the other Bt plants, which was significantly lower than that of both Bt and non-Bt corn, was generally not statistically significantly different, although 10-66% higher, from that of their respective non-Bt near-isolines. The numbers of culturable bacteria and fungi and the activity of representative enzymes involved in the degradation of plant biomass were not significantly different between soil amended with biomass of Bt or non-Bt corn. The degradation of the biomass of all Bt plants in the absence of soil but inoculated with a microbial suspension from the same soil was also significantly less than that of their respective inoculated non-Bt plants. The addition of streptomycin, cycloheximide, or both to the soil suspension did not alter the relative degradation of Bt+ and Bt- biomass, suggesting that differences in the soil microbiota were not responsible for the differential decomposition of Bt+ and Bt- biomass. All samples of soil amended with biomass of Bt plants were immunologically positive for the respective Cry proteins and toxic to the larvae of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), which was used as a representative lepidopteran in insect bioassays (no insecticidal assay was done for the Cry3A protein from potato). The ecological and environmental relevance of these findings is not clear.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1073-1082
Number of pages10
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2005


  • Antibiotics
  • Bacillus thuringiensis
  • Biomass decomposition
  • Bt plants
  • C:N ratio
  • Cry proteins
  • Enzyme activity
  • Immunological and insecticidal assays
  • Lignin
  • Microbial counts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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