Unpredictability of nectar nicotine promotes outcrossing by hummingbirds in Nicotiana attenuata




Many plants use sophisticated strategies to maximize their reproductive success via outcrossing. Nicotiana attenuata flowers produce nectar with nicotine at concentrations that are repellent to hummingbirds, increasing the number of flowers visited per plant. In choice tests using native hummingbirds, we show that these important pollinators learn to tolerate high-nicotine nectar but prefer low-nicotine nectar, and show no signs of nicotine addiction. Nectar nicotine concentrations, unlike those of other vegetative tissues, are unpredictably variable among flowers, not only among populations, but also within populations, and even among flowers within an inflorescence. To evaluate whether variations in nectar nicotine concentrations increase outcrossing, polymorphic microsatellite markers, optimized to evaluate paternity in native N. attenuata populations, were used to compare outcrossing in plants silenced for expression of a biosynthetic gene for nicotine production (Napmt1/2) and in control empty vector plants, which were antherectomized and transplanted into native populations. When only exposed to hummingbird pollinators, seeds produced by flowers with nicotine in their nectar had a greater number of genetically different sires, compared to seeds from nicotine-free flowers. As the variation in nectar nicotine levels among flowers in an inflorescence decreased in N. attenuata plants silenced in various combinations of three Dicer-like (DCL) proteins, small RNAs are probably involved in the unpredictable variation in nectar nicotine levels within a plant.