Code-breaking insects steal plants' defensive signals, enabling counterattack

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Herbivorous insects that dine on crops use a form of molecular code-breaking to ready their defenses against a chemically protective shield employed by their dinner, say scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Reporting in the Oct. 17 issue of the journal Nature, the researchers detailed how corn earworms (Helicoverpa zea) intercept defensive chemical signaling used by their hosts and then produce detoxifying agents to partially counter the threat against them.

"It's a cloak-and-dagger world out there in the fields," said co-author May Berenbaum, the head of the entomology department at Illinois.

When insects attack, many plants activate a cascading signal of jasmonate or salicylate, molecules that promote biosynthesis of toxic allelochemicals that can act both as poisons for herbivores and as attractants for natural enemies of the insects. By recognizing the signaling molecules, earworm caterpillars produce detoxifying enzymes, including cytochrome P450 proteins similar to those in the human liver that neutralize toxins.

"Jasmonic acid to the plant is like a Paul Revere running around shouting, "The British are coming, the British are coming," getting everybody in Boston to grab guns and call for reinforcements," Berenbaum said. "With this early warning signal, the caterpillars can activate their detox systems ahead of time for whatever the plant mobilizes."

In a series of experiments, entomology doctoral student Xianchun Li fed experimental diets containing jasmonate and salicylate to fifth instars -- the oldest caterpillar stage that causes the largest amount of crop damage. Examining the midgut and fatbody, where detoxifying chemicals are produced, Li found almost eightfold increases of P450 compared with caterpillars fed a control diet. At least one of the induced P450s is known to mediate the breakdown of specific toxins turned on in the plant by jasmonate.

The researc

Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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