How to be a successful pest: lessons from the green peach aphid
13 February 2017
UK Scientists, in collaboration with groups in Europe and the US, have discovered why the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) is one of the most destructive pests to many of our most important crops. Their research will inform industry and research programmes to support pest control and aid global food security.
Unlike most plant-colonising insects, which have adapted to live on a small range of closely related plants, green peach aphids can colonise over four hundred plant species. Developing
The green peach aphid transmits over a hundred different plant viruses and this notorious insect feeds on essential crops such as oilseed rape, sugar beet, tomato and potato, as well as wild plant species, which may serve as sources of the plant viruses. An example being the Turnip yellows virus (TuYV) and related viruses, which if left uncontrolled can reduce
The aphids spend winter living on host plants such as peach, apricot or plum, but in the summer months can colonise a huge range of vegetables - from potatoes to spinach, squash, parsley and parsnip.
Generally, the insect parasites that live on a certain species are genetically very well adapted to live on just that plant. Yet, research led by the Earlham Institute (EI) and the John Innes Centre (JIC), has found that the green peach aphid foregoes this specialisation for a more flexible approach involving turning gene activity ‘up’ or ‘down’ in response to different plant hosts and environments.
Dr David Swarbreck, Group Leader at the Earlham Institute, said: “Our study has shed light on the genetic plasticity1 that allows the green peach aphid to survive so well on a multitude of plant species, giving us a greater insight into the survival strategies of one of the most challenging of crop pests.”
More intriguing about the insect's strategy is that aphids can reproduce clonally - i.e. they produce genetically identical lineages. This allows biologists to compare individual aphids with the same genetic background and see precisely what genes are more active than others in aphids living on different plant species.
By growing aphid clones
Dr Yazhou Chen, Postdoctoral Scientist at the John Innes Centre, said: “The genes rapidly turn up or down in single aphids in just two days upon transfer to a new host plant. Given that a single aphid can produce her own offspring, and a lot of it, new aphid infestations may start with just a single aphid.”
The team found that rapid changes in gene expression were vital for the green peach aphid’s generalist lifestyle. Interfering with the expression of one particular gene family, cathepsin B, reduced aphid offspring production, but only on the host plant where the expression of these genes is increased.
Thomas Mathers, Postdoctoral Scientist at the Earlham Institute, said: “Surprisingly, many of the genes involved in host adjustment arose during aphid diversification and are not specific to the green peach aphid. This suggests that it may be the ability to rapidly adjust the expression of key genes in a coordinated fashion that enables
Professor Saskia Hogenhout at the John Innes Centre, added: “Future research is expected to reveal mechanisms involved in the amazing plasticity of the green peach aphid leading to new ways to control this notorious pest. More generally, the research will help understand how some organisms are able to adjust quickly to a broad range of environmental conditions, whereas others are pickier and go extinct more easily, research that is central given our rapidly changing environment due to, for instance, climate change.”
The scientific paper, titled: “Rapid transcriptional plasticity of duplicated gene clusters enables a clonally reproducing aphid to
This research project was led by the Earlham Institute (Norwich, UK) and the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK) in collaboration with the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK), INRA Rennes (France), University of Miami (USA) and Boyce Thomspon Institute for Plant Research (New York, USA).
This project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute for Food in Agriculture (NIFA), (USA).
For further information, read our feature: Aphids - the versatile agricultural nuisance.
Watch Genome Biology's video on Gene regulation, the secret to aphid's wide-ranging crop diet.
Notes to editors
1. The ability of one genotype to produce more than one phenotype when exposed to different environments - phenotypic plasticity allows an organism to change its phenotype in response to changes in the environment.
2. Paper DOI: 10.1186/s13059-016-1145-3
3. Accompanying images can be accessed here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/mxhbccs0pvja0r2/AAAeZeM5sCy8L-flwuK2NDtGa?dl=0
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