Friday Cat-erpillar Blogging: Symbionts

Tobacco Hornworm

Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar

Microbes of one sort or another inhabit the digestive systems of all animals. Some insects have specific structures to house symbionts that aid in digestion and provide important nutrients. Lepidoptera are not known for specific structures to house symbionts. Some Lepidoptera, tobacco hornworm for example, purge the digestive system and flood it with bactericides prior to the molt from caterpillar to pupa. This may be an adaptation to eliminate pathogenic bacteria from the pupa.

Modern techniques in molecular biology use gene sequences to identify bacteria and provide a means of comparing the numbers and similarity. Scientists from Colorado and Panama* compared the gut bacteria in larvae and adults of a tropical butterfly, Heliconius erato. They found that the composition of the bacteria was different. The larvae had greater diversity of bacteria than adults. Less than 13% of the bacteria species were found in both adult and larvae. The contribution that bacteria are making to larvae and adults of this butterfly and most Lepidoptera are unknown. Contributions from bacteria may enable a caterpillar to grow better on certain hosts. Modern techniques have made gut bacteria a fertile area for research.

*Hammer TJ, McMillan WO, Fierer N (2014) Metamorphosis of a Butterfly-Associated Bacterial Community. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86995.
doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0086995

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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