Elucidating the Chemical Ecology of Belowground Plant-Plant Communication

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Directorate


Aphids, i.e. greenflies and blackflies, comprise the major agricultural pests in Western and Northern Europe. Control currently involves the use of insecticides that kill. Alternative sustainable approaches are required which minimise insecticide use. One way is to use naturally-occurring attractive chemicals that enhance the performance of beneficial insects in crops. However, as deployment of these chemicals is expensive and difficult to maintain, causing the plant to release these attractants represents a more sustainable prospect. We have shown that bean plants infested with pea aphids increase the attractiveness of neighbouring bean plants towards parasitic wasps that attack aphids, and that this is mediated by belowground communication. Our further studies show that aphid feeding aboveground causes release of chemicals by the same plant belowground. We propose that the released chemicals are responsible for the observed belowground communication. The aim of this project is to exploit this discovery, by identifying the released chemicals and determining their effect upon neighbouring plants. We will (i) determine the conditions under which aphid-feeding related signals are transferred from roots to their surrounding environment (ii) isolate the chemical signals produced and released by roots using newly developed isolation techniques (iii) identify isolated signals using sophisticated analytical chemistry approaches (iv) measure the behavioural response of parasitic wasps to plants exposed to the identified signals and (v) identify the induced volatile organic compounds (VOCs) collected from recipient bean plants exposed to the chemical signals, using volatile collection techniques, and electrical recordings from parasitic wasp antennae. This project will contribute towards an understanding of plant-plant communication belowground, and represents an exciting opportunity to provide an entirely new class of chemical signal tools that can be used to control insect pests on major world crops.

Technical Summary

Bean plants, Vicia faba, infested with pea aphids, Acyrthosiphon pisum, induce indirect defence in neighbouring uninfested V. faba plants by increasing their attractiveness to the aphid parasitoid, Aphidius ervi. Our preliminary data show that this induction of attractiveness is mediated by belowground signal transfer and that A. pisum feeding aboveground causes belowground release of small lipophilic molecules. We hypothesize that these induce defence in neighbouring plants. This project will elucidate fully the chemical basis of the observed plant-plant signalling in V. faba following A. pisum feeding, and define the impact of identified elicitors upon the attraction of A. ervi towards recipient plants. Specifically, we will (1) determine the dynamic for the emission of aphid-feeding related signals between roots of hydroponically-grown plants, using wind-tunnel behavioural bioassays and A. ervi (2) demonstrate the biological activity of hydroponic solution extracts, collected by solid-phase extraction (SPE), using wind-tunnel behavioural bioassays and A. ervi (3) characterise the chemical signals in hydroponic solution extracts using sophisticated analytical chemistry techniques, including GC and coupled GC-MS (4) demonstrate the biological activity of identified elicitors by addition to hydroponic solution containing intact V. faba plants, and measuring the response of A. ervi to these plants using wind-tunnel assays, and (5) characterise the extent and impact of the identified chemical signals upon defence in recipient V. faba plants, by collecting induced volatile organic compounds (VOCs) using dynamic head-space collection and vapour-phase extraction (VPE) techniques, and coupled GC-electrophysiology (GC-EAG, GC-SSR) using A. ervi antennae.


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Babikova Z (2013) How rapid is aphid-induced signal transfer between plants via common mycelial networks? in Communicative & integrative biology

Description It was successfully demonstrated that plants damaged by insects could transfer stress signals via the rhizosphere to intact plants which could then respond by mounting direct and indirect defence, the latter involving the attraction of parasitoids of the pests. Because of IP commitments and on-going research funded otherwise publications for this work are incomplete. However uplift work collaborative with the University of Aberdeen have demonstrated the same phenomenon as researched specifically here but where the plants i.e. damaged and undamaged were connected through the rhizosphere by arbuscular micorysal networks.
Exploitation Route Ourselves in collaboration with others and apparently separately b some others will attempt to use these findings in practical agricultural contexts of crop protection against insects and pathogens.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment