How aphids decide what is good for them: experiments to test aphid feeding behaviour on Tanacetum vulgare (L.) using different nitrogen regimes

Heike Nowak, Ewald Komor
Oecologia 2010, 163 (4): 973-84
Leaf-chewing herbivores select food with a protein/carbohydrate ratio of 0.8-1.5, whereas phloem sap, which aphids feed on, has a ratio of approximately 0.1. Enhanced N fertilization increases the amino acid concentration in phloem sap and elevates the N/C ratio. The study examines: (1) whether aphids select between plants of different N nutrition, (2) whether feeding time correlates with the amino acid composition of phloem sap, and (3) at which stage of probing aphids identify the quality of the plant. Uroleucon tanaceti (Mordvilko) and Macrosiphoniella tanacetaria (Kaltenbach), specialist aphids feeding on tansy (Tanacetum vulgare L.), were reared on this host plant grown essentially hydroponically (in Vermiculite) in the greenhouse on 1, 3, 6, or 12 mM NH(4)NO(3). One and 3 mM NH(4)NO(3) corresponds to the situation found in natural tansy stands. Aphid stylet penetration was monitored by electrical penetration graphs whilst phloem sap was sampled by stylectomy. Both aphid species settled 2-3 times more frequently on plants fertilized with 6 or 12 mM NH(4)NO(3). The phloem sap of these plants contained up to threefold higher amino acid concentrations, without a change in the proportion of essential amino acids. No time differences were observed before stylet penetration of plant tissue. After the first symplast contact, most aphids penetrated further, except M. tanacetaria on low-N plants, where 50% withdrew the stylet after the first probing. The duration of phloem feeding was 2-3 times longer in N-rich plants and the time spent in individual sieve tubes was up to tenfold longer. Aphids identified the nutritional quality of the host plant mainly by the amino acid concentration of phloem sap, not by leaf surface cues nor the proportion of essential amino acids. However, U. tanaceti infestation increased the percentage of methionine plus tryptophan in phloem tenfold, thus manipulating the plants nutritional quality, and causing premature leaf senescence.

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