Caterpillars foiled when tomato plants summon parasitic wasps

An entomologist at the University of California, Davis, has found new evidence that in the battle to avoid being eaten, plants are not just passive victims but effective defenders against their insect attackers.

Scientists have known for the past two decades that many wild and agricultural plants launch an immune-like chemical defense when attacked by insects. That chemical resistance response can make the plant a poorer food for the insect and it may send out an aromatic SOS that hails the insect's natural enemies.

In a recent study of tomato plants, beet armyworms and parasitic wasps, Jennifer Thaler, a UC Davis postdoctoral fellow, found that wasps on tomato plants whose defense systems had been artificially stimulated killed twice as many caterpillars as did wasps on untreated plants. Thaler, who conducted her study with UC Davis entomology professor Richard Karban, will report her findings in the June 17 issue of the journal Nature.

The finding provides important information for developing environmentally friendly agricultural pest control methods.

"This confirms researchers' assumption that a plant's resistance mechanism provides a net benefit to the plant by increasing the effectiveness of natural enemies against plant-eating insects," Thaler said. "Next we'll want to see how we can make use of this mechanism for large-scale pest management in production agriculture."

"Because these responses can be manipulated using elicitors -- chemicals that can be sprayed onto fields of plants to stimulate natural defenses -- we may be able to reduce the use of traditional pesticides," she said.

Thaler chose to study the resistance response in the tomato plant, an important California agricultural crop that has been chemically well-characterized in previous research.

One of the tomato's common pests is the beet armyworm, a greenish 1-inch-long caterpillar that feeds on tomato leaves and fruit. Thaler was curious how effective the toma

Contact: Patricia Bailey
University of California - Davis

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