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Host recognition by the tobacco hornworm is mediated by a host plant compound


It is generally believed that animals make decisions about the selection of mates, kin or food on the basis of pre-constructed recognition templates. These templates can be innate or acquired through experience1. An example of an acquired template is the feeding preference exhibited by larvae of the moth, Manduca sexta. Naive hatchlings will feed and grow successfully on many different plants or artificial diets, but once they have fed on a natural host they become specialist feeders2,3,4,5,6. Here we show that the induced feeding preference of M. sexta involves the formation of a template to a steroidal glycoside, indioside D, that is present in solanaceous foliage. This compound is both necessary and sufficient to maintain the induced feeding preference. The induction of host plant specificity is at least partly due to a tuning of taste receptors to indioside D. The taste receptors of larvae fed on host plants show an enhanced response to indioside D as compared with other plant compounds tested.

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Figure 1: Host-restricted feeding behaviour is determined by dietary experience.
Figure 2: Indioside D is a recognition cue for host-restricted larvae.
Figure 3: The lateral sensilla styloconia of host-restricted larvae are tuned to indioside D.


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We thank J. Ewer, K. Whitlock, D. Bodnar, C. Gilbert, P. Rivlin and J. Bestman for critical reviews of the manuscript; M. Haribal for preliminary NMR and MS; B. Johnson for equipment to analyse electrophysiological recordings; and J. Almadovar and M. Chu for help in the laboratory. This work was supported by grants from the NSF and the Binational Science Foundation to R.B., and the NSF to C.I.M.

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Correspondence to Marta L. del Campo.

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del Campo, M., Miles, C., Schroeder, F. et al. Host recognition by the tobacco hornworm is mediated by a host plant compound. Nature 411, 186–189 (2001).

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