PerspectivePlant Pathology

Plant nutrient acquisition entices herbivore

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Science  17 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6403, pp. 642-643
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau6017

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To survive in highly complex environments, plants universally rely on specialized, or secondary, metabolites to withstand abiotic challenges (for example, wax to limit transpiration) and biotic challenges (for example, glucosinolates to deter herbivores). These metabolites are lineage-specific, and functional studies usually consider them to have a singular function. However, the complexity of the environment is much larger than the number of secondary metabolites within a plant, indicating that individual specialized metabolites may need to have multiple roles. As the number of functions of a single metabolite increases, so does the number of proteins and processes affected, and there is no guarantee that all of these interactions are positive. On page 694 of this issue, Hu et al. (1) show that benzoxazinoids, a textbook example of specialized metabolites in maize, have a functional duality centered around iron acquisition. The benzoxazinoids aid the uptake of iron. However, this generates a penalty because the herbivore, western corn rootworm, senses benzoxazinoid–iron complexes as a cue to locate and consume maize plants. This presents an evolutionary quandary, whereby maize can acquire iron and be eaten or maize can starve itself of iron and avoid herbivory—most plants have metabolites that create a similar conundrum.