Effects of Sterol Structure on Insect Herbivore Physiology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
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Sterols serve two important biological functions in animals - they act as cellular membrane components, and as the precursor to steroid hormones. Insects require a dietary source of sterol because they cannot synthesize sterols de novo. Cholesterol is the most common sterol in plant-feeding insects, but because plants contain very little cholesterol, plant-feeding insects must convert plant sterols into cholesterol. In this dissertation I investigate the effect of common and novel plant sterols and steroids found in a transgenic tobacco line on several caterpillar species. I also explore the metabolism of these sterols and steroids, and use a microarray approach to identify genes involved in sterol use and metabolism in plant-feeding insects. I also study cholesterol homeostasis using a grasshopper species. Modified tobacco plants containing a novel sterol profile negatively affected performance three different caterpillar species, especially in the second generation. Insects reared on modified plants contained less total sterols and cholesterol than those on control plants having normal sterol profile. Similar results were found using artificial diets containing atypical steroids, e.g., cholestanol and cholestan-3-one, identified in the tobacco plants that were fed to my experimental caterpillars. More importantly, the sterol/steroid ratio, but not their absolute amount in the diets, determined the negative effects. Caterpillar species could convert stigmasterol, a common plant sterol, into cholesterol. They could also convert cholestan-3-one into cholestanol and epicholestanol, although this ability varied among different species. A microarray study, that focused on gene expression in midgut tissue, indicated that stigmasterol, cholestanol and cholestan-3-one could induce different gene expression level, and that cholestan-3-one caused a the largest pool of genes to be regulated. The genes possibly involved in the metabolism of stigmasterol and cholestan-3-one were reported. These findings are important in directing further research on the potential application of plant sterol modification to control pests in agricultural systems. Insect herbivores could behaviorally regulate the intake of several nutrients, but they could not regulate their sterol intake. They did, however, practice cholesterol homeostasis, by postingestively regulating tissue sterol levels, even when feeding on diets with high cholesterol content. Collectively, the results from this dissertation provide unique insight into cholesterol regulation, which is difficult to achieve in mammals that are capable of synthesizing their own sterols.