Flooding and herbivory: the effect of concurrent stress factors on plant volatile emissions and gene expression in two heirloom tomato varieties

Esther Ngumbi, Erinn Dady, Bernarda Calla

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: In nature and in cultivated fields, plants encounter multiple stress factors. Nonetheless, our understanding of how plants actively respond to combinatorial stress remains limited. Among the least studied stress combination is that of flooding and herbivory, despite the growing importance of these stressors in the context of climate change. We investigated plant chemistry and gene expression changes in two heirloom tomato varieties: Cherokee Purple (CP) and Striped German (SG) in response to flooding, herbivory by Spodoptera exigua, and their combination. Results: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) identified in tomato plants subjected to flooding and/or herbivory included several mono- and sesquiterpenes. Flooding was the main factor altering VOCs emission rates, and impacting plant biomass accumulation, while different varieties had quantitative differences in their VOC emissions. At the gene expression levels, there were 335 differentially expressed genes between the two tomato plant varieties, these included genes encoding for phenylalanine ammonia-lyase (PAL), cinnamoyl-CoA-reductase-like, and phytoene synthase (Psy1). Flooding and variety effects together influenced abscisic acid (ABA) signaling genes with the SG variety showing higher levels of ABA production and ABA-dependent signaling upon flooding. Flooding downregulated genes associated with cytokinin catabolism and general defense response and upregulated genes associated with ethylene biosynthesis, anthocyanin biosynthesis, and gibberellin biosynthesis. Combining flooding and herbivory induced the upregulation of genes including chalcone synthase (CHS), PAL, and genes encoding BAHD acyltransferase and UDP-glucose iridoid glucosyltransferase-like genes in one of the tomato varieties (CP) and a disproportionate number of heat-shock proteins in SG. Only the SG variety had measurable changes in gene expression due to herbivory alone, upregulating zeatin, and O-glucosyltransferase and thioredoxin among others. Conclusion: Our results suggest that both heirloom tomato plant varieties differ in their production of secondary metabolites including phenylpropanoids and terpenoids and their regulation and activation of ABA signaling upon stress associated with flooding. Herbivory and flooding together had interacting effects that were evident at the level of plant chemistry (VOCs production), gene expression and biomass markers. Results from our study highlight the complex nature of plant responses to combinatorial stresses and point at specific genes and pathways that are affected by flooding and herbivory combined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number536
JournalBMC Plant Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Beet Armyworm
  • Combined stresses
  • Flooding stress
  • Gene expression
  • Heirloom tomatoes
  • Herbivory
  • Phytochemistry
  • Volatile Organic Compounds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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