Genetic variation in primary metabolites of Pastinaca sativa; can herbivores act as selective agents?

Arthur R. Zangerl, May R. Berenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although insect herbivory has been shown to act as a selective agent on plant secondary metabolism, whether primary metabolites contribute to resistance and can respond to selection by herbivores remains untested. In the wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), its principal herbivore, Depressaria pastinacella, acts as a selective agent on furanocoumarin resistance factors. In this study, we determined whether webworms can, by causing differential reductions in fitness, act as selective agents on parsnip primary metabolites. Estimates of narrow-sense heritabilities were significantly different from zero for C 18 fatty acids in buds and developing fruits, fructose and sorbitol in buds, fructose, myoinositol, bergapten, and psoralen in fruits. Wild parsnips protected from webworms by insecticide produced 2.5 times as much seed biomass as unsprayed plants; that webworms accounted for this difference in plant fitness was indicated by a significant negative relationship between reproductive effort and an index of webworm damage. Only a handful of metabolites influenced resistance to webworms; these included osthol, sorbitol, and protein in developing fruits as well as previously documented furanocoumarins. Osthol, a coumarinic compound, enhanced resistance, as did protein content, while sorbitol lowered resistance. Other primary metabolites may affect resistance to webworms but their effect was context-dependent, that is, their effect depended on concentrations of other metabolites (epistasis). Susceptible plant phenotypes were found to have average chemical compositions. Although there was genetic variation in some of the primary metabolites in parsnips, the epistatic nature of their involvement in resistance and the lack of genetic variation in some suggest that selection on them from webworms will be either inconsistent or ineffective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1985-2002
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Chemical Ecology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2004


  • Defense
  • Depressaria
  • Fatty acids
  • Herbivory
  • Heritability
  • Natural selection
  • Nutrients
  • Pastinaca
  • Selection
  • Sugars

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry


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