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BMC Plant Biology

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Lima bean -- Growth, Lima bean -- Reproduction, European yellow underwing -- Detection and damage, Plant defenses, Hydrocyanic acid, Phaseolus lunatus


Background: Plant defense traits require resources and energy that plants may otherwise use for growth and reproduction. In order to most efficiently protect plant tissues from herbivory, one widely accepted assumption of the optimal defense hypothesis states that plants protect tissues most relevant to fitness. Reproductive organs directly determining plant fitness, including flowers and immature fruit, as well as young, productive leaf tissue thus should be particularly well-defended. To test this hypothesis, we quantified the cyanogenic potential (HCNp)—a direct, chemical defense—systemically expressed in vegetative and reproductive organs in lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), and we tested susceptibility of these organs in bioassays with a generalist insect herbivore, the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctuidae: Noctua pronuba). To determine the actual impact of either florivory (herbivory on flowers) or folivory on seed production as a measure of maternal fitness, we removed varying percentages of total flowers or young leaf tissue and quantified developing fruit, seeds, and seed viability.

Results: We found extremely low HCNp in flowers (8.66 ± 2.19 μmol CN− g−1 FW in young, white flowers, 6.23 ± 1.25 μmol CN− g−1 FW in mature, yellow flowers) and in pods (ranging from 32.05 ± 7.08 to 0.09 ± 0.08 μmol CN− g−1 FW in young to mature pods, respectively) whereas young leaves showed high levels of defense (67.35 ± 3.15 μmol CN− g−1 FW). Correspondingly, herbivores consumed more flowers than any other tissue, which, when taken alone, appears to contradict the optimal defense hypothesis. However, experimentally removing flowers did not significantly impact fitness, while leaf tissue removal significantly reduced production of viable seeds.

Conclusions: Even though flowers were the least defended and most consumed, our results support the optimal defense hypothesis due to i) the lack of flower removal effects on fitness and ii) the high defense investment in young leaves, which have high consequences for fitness. These data highlight the importance of considering plant defense interactions from multiple angles; interpreting where empirical data fit within any plant defense hypothesis requires understanding the fitness consequences associated with the observed defense pattern.


Open Access

Copyright Godschalx et al. 2016

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