Natural Enemies Drive Geographic Variation in Plant Defenses

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Science  05 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6103, pp. 116-119
DOI: 10.1126/science.1226397

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Plant Anti-Insect Armaments

Because individual plants are unable to relocate, they are subject to extreme selection by the insects feeding upon them. One means by which plants suppress herbivory is to produce toxic compounds to deter feeding (see the Perspective by Hare). Agrawal et al. (p. 113) compared pesticide–treated or untreated evening primroses. Over 5 years of pesticide treatment, the production of defensive chemicals in the fruit reduced and flowering times shifted, and the primrose's competitive ability against dandelions improved. Züst et al. (p. 116) examined large-scale geographic patterns in a polymorphic chemical defense locus in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and found that it is matched by changes in the relative abundance of two specialist aphids. Thus, herbivory has strong and immediate effects on the local genotypic composition of plants and traits associated with herbivore resistance.


Plants defend themselves against attack by natural enemies, and these defenses vary widely across populations. However, whether communities of natural enemies are a sufficiently potent force to maintain polymorphisms in defensive traits is largely unknown. Here, we exploit the genetic resources of Arabidopsis thaliana, coupled with 39 years of field data on aphid abundance, to (i) demonstrate that geographic patterns in a polymorphic defense locus (GS-ELONG) are strongly correlated with changes in the relative abundance of two specialist aphids; and (ii) demonstrate differential selection by the two aphids on GS-ELONG, using a multigeneration selection experiment. We thereby show a causal link between variation in abundance of the two specialist aphids and the geographic pattern at GS-ELONG, which highlights the potency of natural enemies as selective forces.

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