Sunday 26 February 2012

Eat and Let Die: Insect Feeds On Toxic Plants for Protection from Predators

ScienceDaily (Feb. 21, 2012) — Certain insects, such as the African variegated grasshopper (Zonocerus variegatus) or the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), native in Europe and Asia, feed on toxic plants in order to protect themselves from predators. A working group at the Botanical Institute at Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (CAU), together with scientists from Technische Universität Braunschweig and the City University College, New York, have published findings on this phenomenon.

The Kiel scientists from the field of biochemical ecology have been studying for more than ten years how particular insects ingest plant toxins and store them within their own bodies. These toxins, the so-calledpyrrolizidine alkaloids, are found for example in ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), a common wild flower in Eurasia. These plants have been repeatedly in the news over the past few years, e.g. as contaminants in rocket lettuce or as compounds causing intoxication of grazing livestock. The scientists now showed that the African grasshopper has developed a specific enzyme, allowing it to store plant toxins for self defence. An almost identical enzyme was found a few years ago in the European cinnabar moth. "The most exciting aspect of this finding is that evolution has developed such a complex mechanism twice in two very different species," says Professor Dietrich Ober, head of the working group in Kiel.

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