Plant-eating insects use their sense of taste to decide where to feed and where to lay their eggs. They do this using taste sensors called gustatory receptors which reside in the antennae and legs of adults, and in the mouthparts of larvae. Some of these sensors detect sugars which signal to the insect that the plant is a nutritious source of food. While others detect bitter compounds, such as poisons released by plants in self-defense.
One of the most widespread plant-eating insects is the diamondback moth, which feeds and lays its eggs on cruciferous vegetable crops, like cabbage, oilseed rape and broccoli. Before laying its eggs, female diamondback moths pat the vegetable’s leaves with their antennae, tasting for the presence of chemicals. But little was known about the identity of these chemicals.
Cabbages produce large amounts of a hormone called brassinolide, which is known to play a role in plant growth. To find out whether diamondback moths can taste this hormone, Yang et al. examined all their known gustatory receptors. This revealed that the adult antennae and larval mouthparts of these moths make high levels of a receptor called PxylGr34.
To investigate the role of PxylGr34, Yang et al. genetically modified frog eggs to produce this receptor. Various tests on these receptors, as well as receptors in the mouthparts of diamondback larvae, showed that PxylGr34 is able to sense the hormone brassinolide. To find out how this affects the behavior of the moths, Yang et al. investigated how adults and larvae responded to different levels of the hormone. This revealed that the presence of brassinolide significantly decreased both larval feeding and the amount of eggs laid by adult moths.
Farmers already use brassinolide to enhance plant growth and protect crops from stress. These results suggest that the hormone might also help to shield plants from insect damage. However, more research is needed to understand how this hormone acts as a deterrent. Further studies could improve understanding of insect behavior and potentially identify more chemicals that can be used for pest control.