To remove or not to remove

Maybug larvae can use their digestive enzymes to feed on toxic host plants, but the effects of these enzymes may make the plant less appetizing.
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Maybug larva. Image credit: Meret Huber

Plants produce certain substances to fend off attackers like plant-feeding insects. To stop these compounds from damaging their own cells, plants often attach sugar molecules to them. When an insect tries to eat the plant, the plant removes the stabilizing sugar, ‘activating’ the compounds and making them toxic or foul-tasting. Curiously, some insects remove the sugar themselves, but it is unclear what consequences this has, especially for insect behavior.

Dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, make high concentrations of a sugar-containing defense compound in their roots called taraxinic acid β-D-glucopyranosyl ester, or TA-G for short. TA-G deters the larvae of the Maybug – a pest also known as the common cockchafer or the doodlebug – from eating dandelion roots. When Maybug larvae do eat TA-G, it is found in their systems without its sugar. However, it is unclear whether it is the plant or the larva that removes the sugar. A second open question is how the sugar removal process affects the behavior of the Maybug larvae.

Using chemical analysis and genetic manipulation, Huber et al. investigated what happens when Maybug larvae eat TA-G. This revealed that the acidity levels in the larvae’s digestive system deactivate the proteins from the dandelion that would normally remove the sugar from TA-G. However, rather than leaving the compound intact, larvae remove the sugar from TA-G themselves. They do this using a digestive enzyme, known as a beta-glucosidase, that cuts through sugar. Removing the sugar from TA-G made the compound less toxic, allowing the larvae to grow bigger, but it also increased TA-G’s deterrent effects, making the larvae less likely to eat the roots.

Any organism that eats plants, including humans, must deal with chemicals like TA-G in their food. Once inside the body, enzymes can change these chemicals, altering their effects. This happens with many medicines, too. In the future, it might be possible to design compounds that activate only in certain species, or under certain conditions. Further studies in different systems may aid the development of new methods of pest control, or new drug treatments.