Comparative analysis of defensive secondary metabolites in wild teosinte and cultivated maize under flooding and herbivory stress

Aaron D. Mleziva, Esther N. Ngumbi

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Climate change is driving an alarming increase in the frequency and intensity of abiotic and biotic stress factors, negatively impacting plant development and agricultural productivity. To survive, plants respond by inducing changes in below and aboveground metabolism with concomitant alterations in defensive secondary metabolites. While plant responses to the isolated stresses of flooding and insect herbivory have been extensively studied, much less is known about their response in combination. Wild relatives of cultivated plants with robust stress tolerance traits provide an excellent system for comparing how diverse plant species respond to combinatorial stress, and provide insight into potential germplasms for stress-tolerant hybrids. In this study, we compared the below and aboveground changes in the secondary metabolites of maize (Zea mays) and a flood-tolerant wild relative Nicaraguan teosinte (Zea nicaraguensis) in response to flooding, insect herbivory, and their combination. Root tissue was analyzed for changes in belowground metabolism. Leaf total phenolic content and headspace volatile organic compound emission were analyzed for changes in aboveground secondary metabolism. Results revealed significant differences in the root metabolome profiles of teosinte and maize. Notably, the accumulation of the flavonoids apigenin, naringenin, and luteolin during flooding and herbivory differentiated teosinte from maize. Aboveground, terpenes, including trans-α-bergamotene and (E)-4,8-dimethylnona-1,3,7-triene, shaped compositional differences in their volatile profiles between flooding, herbivory, and their combination. Taken together, these results suggest teosinte may be more tolerant than maize due to dynamic metabolic changes during flooding and herbivory that help relieve stress and influence plant–insect interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14216
JournalPhysiologia Plantarum
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science
  • Cell Biology


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