Plant eating insects can drive the evolution of plants

11th Oct 2012

In a paper published in the journal Science, scientists have discovered that plants naturally evolve to protect themselves from insect attack, for example from aphids (greenfly and blackfly), but do this as a trade-off with their ability to compete with other plants.

The scientists from the Universities of Zürich, Copenhagen, California (at Davis) and Cornell University worked with the Insect Survey team at the UK’s Rothamsted Research, to examine natural populations of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana in Europe. They compared the geographic variation in the profiles of glucosinolates (a group of chemical compounds that plants can use to protect themselves) in the plants with the abundance of two specialist aphids from 39 years of field data collected through the BBSRC-funded Rothamsted Research Insect Survey.

They found that phytophagous (plant eating) insects may force the rapid evolution of plants through natural selection, with genes resistant to insect attack being favoured. But in areas where the probability of phytophagous insects damage is lower these genes do not appear to be favoured. These authors argue that this finding “highlights the potency of natural enemies as selective forces”.

Dr Richard Harrington, Head on the Rothamsted Insect Survey, said “This study is one of a large range of applications to which Rothamsted's insect data are put and demonstrates the value and versatility of long-term, standardised datasets”

The Rothamsted Insect Survey is one of four National Capabilities which receives strategic funding through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It operates two national networks for monitoring insect populations in the UK. It is accessed by large numbers of external partners and its data used in many publications. The data from both networks have a range of applications in fundamental and applied aspects of insect population dynamics and ecology.

These National Capabilities have national and international importance for the research underpinning sustainable agriculture and the BBSRC have placed a considerable emphasis in these capabilities to foster collaborative links with other researchers and share data collected for nearly 170 years to ensure that others can benefit from these publically supported resources.

Natural Enemies Drive Geographic Variation in Plant Defenses (10.1126/science.1226397)


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