The impact of microbial symbionts on host plant utilization by herbivorous insects



Herbivory, defined as feeding on live plant tissues, is characteristic of highly successful and diverse groups of insects and represents an evolutionarily derived mode of feeding. Plants present various nutritional and defensive barriers against herbivory; nevertheless, insects have evolved a diverse array of mechanisms that enable them to feed and develop on live plant tissues. For decades, it has been suggested that insect-associated microbes may facilitate host plant use, and new molecular methodologies offer the possibility to elucidate such roles. Based on genomic data, specialized feeding on phloem and xylem sap is highly dependent on nutrient provisioning by intracellular symbionts, as exemplified by Buchnera in aphids, although it is unclear whether such symbionts play a substantive role in host plant specificity of their hosts. Microorganisms present in the gut or outside the insect body could provide more functions including digestion of plant polymers and detoxification of plant-produced toxins. However, the extent of such contributions to insect herbivory remains unclear. We propose that the potential functions of microbial symbionts in facilitating or restricting the use of host plants are constrained by their location (intracellular, gut or environmental), and by the fidelity of their associations with insect host lineages. Studies in the next decade, using molecular methods from environmental microbiology and genomics, will provide a more comprehensive picture of the role of microbial symbionts in insect herbivory.