The ecological success of the migratory brown planthopper (Nilaparvata lugens; pictured), a rice pest, depends on its ability to develop into two different forms in response to environmental cues. On page 464 of this issue, Xu et al. show that, during development, the binary action of two distinct insulin receptor proteins, dubbed NlInR1 and NlInR2, controls the switch between these two forms (H.-J. Xu et al. Nature 519, 464–467; 2015).

Credit: Chuan-Xi Zhang

The long-winged planthopper escapes adverse habitats to search for resources, whereas the short-winged form is highly fertile, but cannot fly. The authors delineate a molecular signalling cascade, in which the production of an insulin peptide in the brain acts on NlInR1 to trigger the formation of long wings. NlInR2 impedes the action of the cascade to prevent wing growth. The relative expression levels of each receptor therefore determine which form each planthopper adopts.

These results help to show how environmental cues regulate generation of the highly fertile short-winged insects, and could be used to develop ways to control these agricultural pests.Footnote 1