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Turning Tomato Plants’ Chemical Signal into Pest-Killer

“I may be under attack, but take some of this to protect yourself,” is an anthropomorphized way of looking at the interaction.


Garden tomatoes! Image credit: National Museum of Natural History.

When tomato plants are attacked by cutworms, the plants will release various kinds of substances that act like a chemical warning to the plants nearby, alerting them that the annoying grubs are approaching. How does it possibly affect their neighbors? Based on a new study, researchers have found that tomatoes can spread kind of chemical called (Z)-3-hexenol, when they are being attack and in fact it will be absorbed and converted by nearby plants into a chemical weapon against cutworms, which is quite rare that they could such a chemical “warning” as a weapon.

According to this latest study, the scientists claim that nearby tomato plants being exposed to these chemical in need of help incorporate a substance called HexVic in their leaves. If HexVic is fed to cutworms, the larvae of a moth, it will be less likely that cutworms could gain weight and survive.

Further analysis demonstrated that HexVic was generated from the conversion of infested plants’ (Z)-3-hexenol emissions, which the scientists confirmed by labeling the latter chemical with a radioactive substance that is also easily found in the former.

Like tomato plants, sorghum and rice can generate HexVic as well and they are able to apply a similar technique in their defense.

As Ian Kaplan, researcher from Purdue University said, it was rare to see such kind of selective uptake of one specific compound and then conversion into a compound which would be directly toxic to the caterpillar itself. It is significantly shown that the signal could be replicated across really diverse plants.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and co-authored by Kenji Matsui from Japan’s Yamaguchi University.

Source: Chemistry World

Journal reference: Sugimoto, Koichi, et al. “Intake and transformation to a glycoside of (Z)-3-hexenol from infested neighbors reveals a mode of plant odor reception and defense.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.19 (2014): 7144-7149.