Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Plant biology

The benefits of nicotine

Credit: F. HABEGGER/GRANT HEILMAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Gardeners and farmers know that nicotine has its uses: a quick squirt of a nicotine solution keeps pests at bay. But do the plants that make this compound use it to deter invaders? This isn't as obvious as one might think; evolution might have rendered the insects that eat these particular plants completely resistant to nicotine. Anke Steppuhn et al. aimed to find out (PLoS Biol. 2, e217; 2004).

They produced transgenic tobacco plants (Nicotiana attenuata) in which a key enzyme in nicotine synthesis was silenced. The nicotine concentration in these plants dropped to 3–4% of normal levels. Experiments with greenhouse-grown tobacco showed that the larvae of a key pest — the tobacco hornworm Manduca sexta — much preferred leaves from the transgenic plants than from wild-type plants. The larvae also grew much more quickly when reared on the transgenic plants, implying that although these bugs can tolerate nicotine, they fare better without it.

Experiments with field-grown tobacco gave similar results, and showed that the transgenic plants also lost significantly more leaf area to pests than did wild-type plants. The inescapable conclusion is that secondary metabolites such as nicotine, although not essential for normal plant growth and reproduction, nonetheless make significant contributions to ecology.

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tromans, A. The benefits of nicotine. Nature 430, 980 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/430980a

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/430980a

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing