press release, 25. January 2019

Ingenious techniques in neighbourhood dispute

Wild tobacco plants gain an advantage by the timely sending of hungry caterpillars to the competition

Plants cannot run away from animals which eat them, but many species have their own ways of defending themselves; they produce chemicals which don’t do hungry creepy-crawlies any good. In this way, wild tobacco plants strike back at the caterpillars of the tobacco hawk moth. A study led by researchers from the iDiv research centre, the University of Jena and the UFZ shows that it can be worthwhile for a plant to put up with these little creatures for a few days before starting its defence. In this way, the caterpillars move to a neighbouring plant when, and only when they are mature enough to be really good eaters, thus giving plant number one an advantage in intraspecies competition.

After the wild tobacco plant (Nicotiana attenuata) has been attacked by a caterpillar of the tobacco hawk moth, it waits a few days and only then starts its chemical defence. Photo: Pia Backmann
After the wild tobacco plant (Nicotiana attenuata) has been attacked by a caterpillar of the tobacco hawk moth, it waits a few days and only then starts its chemical defence.
Photo: Pia Backmann

Actually, one would normally assume that plants suffer disadvantages if they do not mount their defences until after herbivores have inflicted their first damage. The faster a plant reacts, the better; or so one would expect. Why, then, do some plant species take several days to produce chemical defences after they are attacked by caterpillars, for example?

An explanation has now been provided by a research team led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in the journal The American Naturalist. Scientists have been working on wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata), which the caterpillars of the tobacco hawk moth (Manduca sexta) are particularly partial to. To defend themselves, the plants produce chemical substances which are toxic to the caterpillars. The researchers have now been able to find out why the plants delay production of these substances for a few days after a caterpillar hatches from its egg, using a computer model based on observational data.

The key lies in the special ecology of wild tobacco. The species grows in desert areas in the United States where seeds wait for years in the ground for a fire and afterwards all germinate together. As a result, competition for water and nutrients between the many tobacco plants of the same age is high. If a plant then has to deal with herbivores as well, this puts it at a great disadvantage. "Wild tobacco, however, has found an ingenious way to 'pass the buck’; the plant dispatches the caterpillars to its neighbours without further ado," says Dr Pia Backmann from the iDiv research centre and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ).

This works best when the caterpillars are already several days old, as the new model by Pia Backmann shows. Before this, the caterpillars of the tobacco hawk moth are still too small and not strong or agile enough to make their way to another plant. Furthermore, they also eat very little at this stage and the resulting damage is therefore relatively minor. Starting at around ten days of age however, eating really begins in earnest; the caterpillars now eat well over 90 per cent of the leaf mass they will consume until they pupate at about 21 days of age. Also, they are now big enough to move to another plant when things get uncomfortable; that is to say, when their host plant has ramped up its defences. For this reason, the plant optimally starts producing toxins about four days after the caterpillar infestation. It takes a few more days for the defence to become fully active.

"For tobacco plants, 'the sooner the better’, doesn’t apply", says Prof Nicole van Dam of the iDiv research centre and the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. "Instead, it's about activating the defence at the right time so that the caterpillar crawls to a neighbouring plant and weakens it - and the clever plant will, in the end, outperform its competitor." If the plant is too early, it may indeed succeed in killing the caterpillar after a few days. But because the production of defence chemicals uses energy, the plant’s growth will ultimately lag behind that of its conspecifics. If the defence mechanism kicks in too late, the caterpillar may stay on the plant until pupation, causing serious feeding damage which may even kill the plant.

Prof Nicole van Dam together with Prof Ian Baldwin, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, MPI-CE, and a member of iDiv, and their team had already found, in previous laboratory experiments, that caterpillars develop more slowly and die more often under the effect of the defence chemicals. They also assessed that it pays off for caterpillars on plants with activated defences to move to another plant, which is not producing toxins. However, that this is the plant's own strategy to deal with intraspecific competition; allowing itself to be eaten for a few days and only then defending itself, could be clarified only with the assistance of the new computer model.

Lead author Pia Backmann carried out the study at the iDiv research centre and the UFZ, collecting the observational data during a residence at the field station of the MPI-CE in the United States. Since then, Pia Backmann has worked as a postdoc at the Technical University of Dresden.

(text source: iDiv)

Pia Backmann, Volker Grimm, Gottfried Jetschke, Yue Lin, Matthijs Vos, Ian T. Baldwin, and Nicole M. van Dam (2019): Delayed Chemical Defense: Timely Expulsion of Herbivores Can Reduce Competition with Neighboring Plants. The American Naturalist 193:1, 125-139.

Further information

Prof. Dr. Volker Grimm
UFZ-Department Ecological Modelling

Dr. Pia Backmann
iDiv; UFZ; Technical University Dresden

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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