First Advisor

Daniel J. Ballhorn

Date of Publication

Summer 6-29-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biology






Plant defenses, Plant-microbe relationships, Symbiosis, Lima bean -- Diseases and pests, Legumes -- Diseases and pests, Rhizobium, Botanical chemistry



Physical Description

1 online resource (xiv, 227 pages)


As sessile organisms, plants evolved a plethora of defenses against their attackers. Given the role of plants as a primary food source for many organisms, plant defense has important implications for community ecology. Surprisingly, despite the potential to alter entire food webs and communities, the factors determining plant investment in defense are not well-understood, and are even less understood considering the numerous symbiotic interactions in the same plant. Legume-rhizobia symbioses engineer ecosystems by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere in trade for plant photosynthates, yet connecting symbiotic resource exchange to food web interactions has yet to be established. Here I test how rhizobia influence plant defense and tritrophic interactions in lima bean (Fabaceae - Phaseolus lunatus L.): a model plant in chemical ecology research characterized by a broad range of different defenses. Examining suites of traits among lima bean genotypes, highly cyanogenic cultivars and wild type plants (high cyanotypes) produce more hook-shaped trichomes, as a putative combined approach of chemical and mechanical defenses, forming defense syndromes to protect against multiple feeding guilds (Chapter 2). Testing costs that may have contributed to forming tradeoffs among strategies, high cyanotypes show reduced fitness under plant-plant competition relative to low cyanotypes, but when challenged with herbivory, high cyanotypes fitness reductions are no longer evident (Chapter 3). Young leaves, not reproductive organs, are the most cyanogenic lima bean organ, and removal quantitatively decreases fitness, supporting assumptions that the most valuable tissues will be most highly defended (Chapter 4). Testing the degree to which nitrogen-fixing rhizobia contribute to cyanogenesis, high cyanotypes form more nodules than low cyanotypes. Quantitative relationships between nodule number and plant traits highlight the role symbiotic investment plays a role in plant defense and nutritive phenotype, while simultaneously, genotypically-determined levels of defense shape plant investment in symbiosis (Chapter 5). Interestingly, traits that trade off by cyanotype (i.e. high cyanogenesis but low indirect defense) reflect the patterns in plants with nitrogen-fixing rhizobia. Rhizobia-inoculated lima beans show reduced indirect defenses, recruiting fewer parasitoid wasps (Chapter 6) and predatory ants (Chapter 7). Examining plant-ant attraction in greater detail, ants prefer headspace regions above EFN droplets, corresponding with species-specific differences in suites of volatiles, indicating EFN, like floral nectar, can be scented to manipulate insect behavior (Chapter 8). Overall, understanding when investing in traits to recruit predators is more effective than investing in defensive chemistry, and how particular ecological contexts, such as symbioses can influence the outcome of defense allocation strategies remains a fascinating area of research. Determining the mechanisms underlying why rhizobia and other belowground microbial symbionts influence their host plants' above ground interactions, whether plants traits affected by symbiotic microbes are simply a function of the costs and benefits from resource exchange, or whether symbionts can influence the success of primarily direct versus indirectly defended plants is an important question for understanding complex trophic systems and connecting to agricultural implications for more effective biological pest control.


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