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Engineering the future of food security: Can genetically modified microbes be environmentally sustainable drivers of crop production?

  • Chemical pesticides previously helped drive the ‘Green Revolution’, which saw food production triple.
  • Unfortunately, these chemicals are highly toxic and pollute the environment.
  • Microbes that can naturally kill plant pests could provide alternative means of reducing crop damage.
  • Associate Professor Ugur Azizoglu’s group at Kayseri University and Erciyes University, Turkey, is seeking to advance sustainable crop pest management strategies by genetically engineering so-called entomopathogenic microorganisms.
  • This could provide an environmentally sustainable approach to pest management.

Throughout history, our ability to feed the growing population has been fraught with doubts over whether crop outputs could match the ever-increasing number of mouths to feed. With the world’s population forecast to increase to ~10.4 billion by 2100, there is an urgent need to increase food production to match the demands of a growing population. During a period of change to agricultural practices in the mid-20th century, termed the ‘Green Revolution’, the use of chemical pesticides, alongside higher-yielding crop varieties and fertilisers, saw significant increases in global crop outputs and reductions in crop losses due to insect pests.

An estimated 385 million people per year are unintentionally poisoned by chemical pesticides globally, with 11,000 deaths.

Pesticides, which include insecticides, are chemicals that are toxic to crop pests and crucial to preventing crop losses through insect damage. Without pesticides, we would see significant losses in fruit production (78%), vegetable production (54%), and cereal crops (32%) – their effects and influence cannot be underappreciated. Despite the benefits associated with crop defence against insects, many pesticides have harmful effects on the environment as well as on human and animal health. Using data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 385 million people per year are unintentionally poisoned by chemical pesticides globally, with 11,000 deaths.

Not only do traditional chemical pesticides have major effects on non-target species, including pollinators, but over-application of pesticides onto crops can result in contamination of water supplies, affecting human health and aquatic ecosystems and damaging the microbiota within agricultural soils. Pesticides also exert selective pressure on insects, forcing them to find new ways to evade their toxic effects and killing off those that cannot. Over time, pests that survive develop methods of resistance that render the pesticide ineffective.

In light of these issues, Associate Professor Ugur Azizoglu’s group at Kayseri University and Erciyes University, Turkey, is looking to use more natural and sustainable means to combat crop pests.

Entomopathogenic microbes

Entomopathogenic microorganisms are organisms like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses, and nematodes (roundworms) that cause diseases in insects. These microbes infect and/or produce compounds that are toxic to or disrupt the growth of insects. Their ability to kill insect pests has been used as a natural approach to crop pest management for some time now.

Figure 1. Receptor binding initiates cell signalling events that lead to perforation of the gut lining, sepsis (septicaemia), and insect death. Created with

A widely used example of a bioinsecticide is the entomopathogenic bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). These ubiquitous soil-dwelling bacteria produce structures called parasporal crystal (Cry) proteins as part of their reproductive cycle. Caterpillars and other susceptible arthropods ingest these crystals, which dissolve in the alkaline conditions of the insect midgut, releasing and activating toxins that bind to cell receptors on the surface of epithelial cells in the insect midgut. Receptor binding initiates cell signalling events leading to perforation of the gut lining, sepsis, and insect death (Figure 1). Cry protein toxicity generally affects a narrow range of insect species due to the particular receptors Cry toxins bind to on the surface of midgut epithelial cells. Additional benefits of using Bt Cry proteins as pesticides are that they are not harmful to humans and are completely biodegradable, unlike the majority of chemical pesticides, thus minimising environmental damage.

Bt maize and cotton crops have been shown to repress insect damage and reduce the need for pesticide application in China and America.

Bt bacteria can either be sprayed directly onto crops, or plants can be genetically engineered to express the Cry proteins in their leaves and, when consumed, kills insects. Bt maize and cotton crops have been shown to repress insect damage and reduce the need for pesticide application in China and America. However, these benefits were soon undermined by the evolution of insect resistance to the Bt toxin, which is also a major problem for chemical pesticides.

Although entomopathogenic organisms produce natural toxins that kill insects very effectively, their effectiveness as a pesticide is reduced by pests developing resistance. So how can these native soil microbes be better utilised or improved? The continual development of recombinant DNA techniques may hold the answer.

Associate Professor Ugur Azizoglu and his team investigate solutions to reduce the use of chemical insecticides for a cleaner and greener future.

Recombinant DNA technology

Recombinant DNA technology involves isolating DNA, typically genes encoding toxins (eg, Cry toxins), and using expression vectors (plasmids) to replicate and express them. DNA is integrated into plasmids at regions called cloning sites. Using restriction enzymes, which cut DNA in specific locations, the closed-loop structure of the plasmid can be opened to allow DNA to be integrated into the plasmid backbone. Upon integration, the now recombinant vector (plasmid + DNA of interest) can be transformed (put into) into bacteria that will express and produce the recombinant protein. A key feature of expression vectors is the region containing a selectable marker, typically a gene encoding resistance to an antibiotic, which only selects bacteria that have been successfully transformed (Figure 2A). Resistant bacteria can then be grown in culture and induced using various chemicals to express the recombinant protein (Figure 2B). These same principles can be applied to making plants express these pesticidal proteins, which in the context of Bt crops is the Cry protein. Pyramiding or stacking multiple cry genes together, each one affecting different midgut receptors, can help to reduce insects developing resistance to these crops as they’d need to simultaneously evolve resistance to all the Cry proteins.

Dr Azizoglu and his team have used these techniques and Bt bacterium to engineer insecticidal genes, hormones, novel toxins, and other substances into Bt and to search for novel cry genes to improve the pathogenicity of Bt to crop pests. The ability to transfer DNA-encoding insecticidal toxins into entomopathogenic microbes to increase their pathogenicity offers a sustainable alternative to chemical pesticides. The potential that recombinant DNA technology offers is vast, but its use has raised concerns over the effects it may have on the environment.

Figure 2A. Selectable markers, typically a gene encoding resistance to an antibiotic, only select bacteria that have been successfully transformed.
Figure 2B. Resistant bacteria can be induced using various chemicals to express the recombinant protein.

Implications of recombinant DNA technology

With the ability to engineer entomopathogenic microbes with a variety of insecticidal proteins and toxins, there is some evidence that these compounds have negative effects on non-target organisms in the wider ecosystem. Natural predators of crop pests will consume insects that have ingested recombinant biopesticides, which could then have secondary toxic effects on the predator.

This secondary toxicity could have knock-on effects in tritrophic interactions (plant–herbivore–predator) and disturb ecosystem food chains surrounding agricultural land. More studies on the impacts of recombinant proteins and their effects on the predators of crop pests are needed to minimise ecological impacts of this technology.

Despite concerns, genetically modifying entomopathogenic microbes offers a less environmentally polluting alternative to chemical pesticides. Using these techniques, alongside exploring natural microbial strategies to combat pests, will ultimately facilitate a more sustainable approach to managing crop pests.

Do you think these engineered bacteria can ever be as effective as chemical pesticides?

Exactly, they might be even more effective. The use of engineered microbes in pest control is a popular research topic because these engineered bacteria have many advantages, such as achieving targeted pest control, protecting many beneficial species, increasing resistance to disease, and increasing crop yield capacities.

What motivates you to conduct your research in this field?

This subject is quite complex. To mention briefly, one of the most pressing problems of the world and my country is the decline of fertile soils and the pollution of our groundwater due to unconscious and excessive use of chemicals. The harm caused by these chemicals and the length of time they remain in the environment is a major concern for the future and safety of humans. Therefore, it is important to develop new pest control agents that are safer and more environmentally compatible.

How can we solve concerns in society regarding genetically engineered microbes?

The use of engineered microbes and their products for pest control has brought about some social concerns and debates. The primary concern is their potential negative effects on the environment. Other concerns regarding this technology include gene flow into other microorganisms, resistance in target pests, and undesirable impacts on health. However, to overcome these concerns in society, responsible research centres and scientists need to participate in education and training programmes to provide better information regarding the benefits and risks of recombinant DNA technology. Despite these controversies, biotechnological developments in pest control will likely continue without slowing down.

Related posts.

Further reading

Azizoglu, U, et al, (2023) Biotechnological advances in Bacillus thuringiensis and its toxins: Recent updates. Reviews in Environmental Science and Biotechnology, 22, 319–348.

Boedeker, W, et al, (2020) The global distribution of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning: estimations based on a systematic review. BMC Public Health, 20, 1–19.

Hedden, P, (2003) The genes of the Green Revolution. Trends in Genetics, 19(1), 5–9.

Kumari, P, et al, (2022) Biotechnological approaches for host plant resistance to insect pests. Frontiers in Genetics, 13, 914029.

Pingali, PL, (2012) Green revolution: Impacts, limits and the path ahead. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(31), 12302–12308.

Tabashnik, B E, Carrière, Y, (2015) Successes and failures of transgenic Bt crops: Global patterns of field-evolved resistance. In M. Soberón, Y. Gao, & A. Bravo (Eds.), Bt resistance: characterization and strategies for GM crops producing Bacillus thuringiensis toxins (pp. 1–14).

Tudi, M, et al, (2021) Agriculture development, pesticide application and its impact on the environment. Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, 1112.

Watkins, P R, et al, (2011) Insects, nematodes and other pests. In A. Altman & P. M. Hasegawa (Eds.), Plant Biotechnology and Agriculture: Prospects for the 21st Century (First Edit, pp. 353–370). Elsevier Inc.

United Nations, (2022) World Population Prospects 2022: Summary of Results. In United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (Issue 9).

Ugur Azizoglu

Dr Azizoglu is an Associate Professor at the Crop and Animal Production Department, Kayseri University, and currently, he continues his research at Erciyes University Betül-Ziya Eren Genome and Stem Cell Center (GENKÖK), Turkey. He completed his PhD at Erciyes University in 2014. The focus of his studies is genetically modified bacteria and plant growth-promoting bacteria. Dr Azizoglu has participated in many conferences and workshops and has served as a reviewer for international journals.

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  • This project was funded by Kayseri University Scientific Project Unit (FOA-2023-1115), Erciyes University Scientific Project Unit (FBD11-3634), and The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK; TOVAG 123O376).


  • The author would like to express special thanks to Prof Dr Salih Karabörklü, Dr Zehra Büşra Azizoğlu, and his English teacher Halil Yücel.

Cite this Article

Azizoglu, U, (2023) Engineering the future of food security: Can genetically modified microbes be environmentally sustainable drivers of crop production? Research Features.

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