Molecular Adaptation of Chrysochus Leaf Beetles to Toxic Compounds in Their Food Plants

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Herbivores that feed on toxic plants must overcome plant defenses and occasionally may even benefit from them. The current challenge is to understand how herbivores evolve the necessary physiological adaptations and which changes at the molecular level are involved. In this context we studied the leaf beetles genus Chrysochus (Coleoptera, Chrysomelidae). Two species of this genus, C. auratus and C. cobaltinus, feed on plants that contain toxic cardenolides. These beetles not only avoid poisoning by the toxin but also use it for their own defense against predators. All other Chrysochus species feed on plants that are devoid of cardenolides. The most important active principle of cardenolides is their capacity to bind to and thereby block the ubiquitous Na+/K+-ATPase responsible for maintaining cellular potentials. By analyzing the DNA sequence of the putative ouabain-binding site of the α-subunit of the Na+/K+-ATPase gene of Chrysochus and its close relatives feeding on plants with or without cardenolides, we here trace the evolution of cardenolide insensitivity in this group of beetles. The most interesting difference among the sequences involves the amino acid at position 122. Whereas all species that do not encounter cardenolides have an asparagine in this position, both Chrysochus species that feed on cardenolide plants have a histidine instead. This single amino acid substitution has already been shown to confer cardenolide insensitivity in the monarch butterfly. A mtDNA-based phylogeny corroborates the hypothesis that the asparagine at position 122 of the α-subunit of the Na+/K+-ATPase gene as observed in Drosophila and other insects is the plesiomorphic condition in this group of leaf beetles. The later host-plant switch to cardenolide-containing plants in the common ancestor of C. auratus and C. cobaltinus coincides with the exchange of the asparagine for a histidine in the ouabain binding site.

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