Plant secondary chemistry mediates the performance of a nutritional symbiont associated with a tree-killing herbivore

Thomas S. Davis, Richard W. Hofstetter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Many herbivores consume microbial food sources in addition to plant tissues for nutrition. Despite the ubiquity of herbivore-microbe feeding associations, few studies examine how host plant phenotypes affect microbial symbionts of herbivores. We tested the hypothesis that chemical polymorphism in a plant population mediates the performance of nutritional microbial symbionts. We surveyed the composition of ponderosa pine resin in northern Arizona, USA, for variation in six monoterpenes, and we approximated four chemical phenotypes. We reared populations of an herbivorous tree-killing beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis) in ponderosa pine host material, controlling for three monoterpene compositions representing an α-pinene to Δ-3-carene gradient. Beetles were reared in host material where the dominant monoterpene was α-pinene, Δ-3-carene, or a phenotype that was intermediate between the two. We isolated nutritional fungal symbionts (Entomocorticium sp. B) from beetle populations reared in each phenotype and performed reciprocal growth experiments in media amended to represent four "average" monoterpene compositions. This allowed us to test the effects of natal host phenotype, chemical polymorphism, and the interaction between natal host phenotype and chemical polymorphism on a nutritional symbiont. Three important findings emerged: (1) fungal isolates grew 25-32% faster when acquired from beetles reared in the intermediate phenotype; (2) the mean growth rate of nutritional fungi varied up to 44% depending on which monoterpene composition media was amended with; and (3) fungal isolates uniformly performed best in the intermediate phenotype regardless of the chemical composition of their natal host. The performance of nutritional fungi related to both the chemical "history" of their associated herbivore and the chemical phenotypes they are exposed to. However, all fungal isolates appeared adapted to a common chemical phenotype. These experiments argue in favor of the hypothesis that chemical polymorphism in plant populations mediates growth of nutritional symbionts of herbivores. Intraspecific chemical polymorphism in plants contributes indirectly to the regulation of herbivore populations, and our experiments demonstrate that the ecological effects of plant secondary chemistry extend beyond the trophic scale of the herbivore-plant interaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)421-429
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Bark beetle
  • Dendroctonus brevicomis
  • Entomocorticium spp.
  • Herbivory
  • Local adaptation
  • Monoterpenes
  • Mutualism
  • Phenotype
  • Phytochemistry
  • Phytophagy
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • Symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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