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Glucosinolates in oilseed rape: secondary metabolites that influence interactions with herbivores and their natural enemies


  • T.J.A. Bruce

    Corresponding author
    1. Biological Chemistry and Crop Protection Department, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK
    • Correspondence

      T.J.A. Bruce, Biological Chemistry and Crop Protection Department, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Herts AL5 2JQ, UK. Email:

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Glucosinolates are sulphur-containing secondary metabolites characteristic of Brassicaceous plants. Glucosinolate breakdown products, which include isothiocyanates, are released following tissue damage when hydrolytic enzymes act on them. The isothiocyanates have toxic effects on generalist herbivores when they attempt to feed on oilseed rape, Brassica napus, and also function as repellents. However, specialist herbivores such as Brevicoryne brassicae aphids, flea beetles, Psylliodes chrysocephala and the Lepidopteran pest, Pieris rapae, are adapted to the presence of glucosinolates and thrive on plants containing them. They may do this by avoiding tissue damage to prevent the formation of isothiocyanates or by metabolising or tolerating glucosinolates. For many specialist herbivores, the isothiocyanates function as attractants and glucosinolates can even be sequestered for defence against predatory insects. Thus, these herbivores have evolved resistance to host-plant secondary metabolites and this type of evolutionary history may have given some insects an enhanced ability to adapt to xenobiotics. In an agricultural context, this may make pests better able to evolve resistance to artificially applied pesticides. The effect of increased glucosinolate content in making oilseed rape cultivars more susceptible to specialist pests was highlighted in a seminal article in the Annals of Applied Biology in 1995. This review of the literature considers developments in this area since then.