Eaten alive: Crops can ‘feel’ insects eating them, providing clues to insect resistance

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new study arrived at the fairly gruesome conclusion that plants can feel insects eat them alive. And a specific type of plant, the Arabidopsis in the cabbage family, can actually distinguish between insects munching on it based on the way they chew and drool.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, wasn’t conducted for charity. There’s money in Arabidopsis, which flowers into major food crops kale, broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts.

Rather than soaking plants with insecticides, agricultural breeders are keenly interested in designing them in a way that allows them to naturally resist pests such as two the researchers chose for their experiment. They want to pack martial arts insect fighting capability in the seed.

“Among the genes changed when insects bite are ones that regulate processes like root growth, water use and other ecologically significant processes that plants carefully monitor and control,” Schultz said. “Questions about the cost to the plant if the insect continues to eat would be an interesting follow-up study to explore these deeper genetic interactions.”

The findings have already been incorporated into research that was published at the same time in the same journal, said Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri and a lead author on the paper. The value of the study is the revelation that plants respond with different chemicals to different insects, and the more defenses, the better. With Arabidopsis, for example, breeders who want to fight off farm pests have to take each insect into account, and not grow plants that can defend against only one.

“Breeders have to do that. This is a really interesting new frontier in plant biology,” said Jack Schultz, a University of Missouri researcher who led the study. “How to deal with multiple stressers,” giving plants the ability to not only fend off one attacker, but many.

Read full, original article: This plant can feel bugs eating it alive. Can scientists improve its self defense?

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