- Entomology Department, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany
- Adaptation, Evolutionary Applications, Evolutionary Ecology, Expression Studies, Genotype-Phenotype, Molecular Evolution, Phenotypic Plasticity, Species interactions
Transcriptional differences between the two host strains of Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae)
Speciation through selection on mitochondrial genes?
Whether speciation through ecological specialization occurs has been a thriving research area ever since Mayr (1942) stated this to play a central role. In herbivorous insects, ecological specialization is most likely to happen through host plant differentiation (Funk et al. 2002). Therefore, after Dorothy Pashley had identified two host strains in the Fall armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, in 1988 (Pashley 1988), researchers have been trying to decipher the evolutionary history of these strains, as this seems to be a model species in which speciation is currently occurring through host plant specialization. Even though FAW is a generalist, feeding on many different host plant species (Pogue 2002) and a devastating pest in many crops, Pashley identified a so-called corn strain and a so-called rice strain in Puerto Rico. Genetically, these strains were found to differ mostly in an esterase, although later studies showed additional genetic differences and markers, mostly in the mitochondrial COI and the nuclear TPI. Recent genomic studies showed that the two strains are overall so genetically different (2% of their genome being different) that these two strains could better be called different species (Kergoat et al. 2012). So far, the most consistent differences between the strains have been their timing of mating activities at night (Schoefl et al. 2009, 2011; Haenniger et al. 2019) and hybrid incompatibilities (Dumas et al. 2015; Kost et al. 2016). Whether and to what extent host plant preference or performance contributed to the differentiation of these sympatrically occurring strains has remained unclear.
In the current study, Orsucci et al. (2020) performed oviposition assays and reciprocal transplant experiments with both strains to measure fitness effects, in combination with a comprehensive RNAseq experiment, in which not only lab reared larvae were analysed, but also field-collected larvae. When testing preference and performance on the two host plants corn and rice, the authors did not find consistent fitness differences between the two strains, with both strains performing less on rice plants, although larvae from the corn strain survived more on corn plants than those from the rice strain. These results mostly confirm findings of a number of investigations over the past 30 years, where no consistent differences on the two host plants were observed (reviewed in Groot et al. 2016). However, the RNAseq experiments did show some striking differences between the two strains, especially in the reciprocally transplanted larvae, where both strains had been reared on rice or on corn plants for one generation: both strains showed transcriptional responses that correspond to their respective putative host plants, i.e. overexpression of genes involved in digestion and metabolic activity, and underexpression of genes involved in detoxification, in the corn strain on corn and in the rice strain on rice. Interestingly, similar sets of genes were found to be overexpressed in the field-collected larvae with which a RNAseq experiment was conducted as well.
The most interesting result of the study performed by Orsucci et al. (2020) is the underexpression in the corn strain of so-called numts, small genomic sequences that corresponded to fragments of the mitochondrial COI and COIII. These two numts were differentially expressed in the two strains in all RNAseq experiments analysed. This result coincides with the fact that the COI is one of the main diagnostic markers to distinguish these two strains. The authors suggestion that a difference in energy production between these two strains may be linked to a shift in host plant preference matches their finding that rice plants seem to be less suitable host plants than corn plants. However, as the lower suitability of rice plants was true for both strains, it remains unclear whether and how this difference could be linked to possible host plant differentiation between the strains. The authors also suggest that COI and potentially other mitochondrial genes may be the original target of selection between these two strains. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that field-collected larvae have frequently been found to have a rice strain mitochondrial genotype and a corn strain nuclear genotype, also in this study, while in the lab (female rice strain x male corn strain) hybrid females (i.e. females with a rice strain mitochondrial genotype and a corn strain nuclear genotype) are behaviorally sterile (Kost et al. 2016). Whether and how selection on mitochondrial genes or on mitonuclear interactions has indeed affected the evolution of these strains in the New world, and will affect the evolution of FAW in newly invaded habitats in the Old world, including Asia and Australia – where, so far, only corn strain and (female rice strain x male corn strain) hybrids have been found (Nagoshi 2019), will be a challenging research question for the coming years.
 Dumas, P. et al. (2015). Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) host-plant variants: two host strains or two distinct species?. Genetica, 143(3), 305-316. doi: 10.1007/s10709-015-9829-2
 Funk, D. J., Filchak, K. E. and Feder J. L. (2002) Herbivorous insects: model systems for the comparative study of speciation ecology. In: Etges W.J., Noor M.A.F. (eds) Genetics of Mate Choice: From Sexual Selection to Sexual Isolation. Contemporary Issues in Genetics and Evolution, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht. doi: 10.1007/978-94-010-0265-3_10
 Groot, A. T., Unbehend, M., Hänniger, S., Juárez, M. L., Kost, S. and Heckel D. G.(2016) Evolution of reproductive isolation of Spodoptera frugiperda. In Allison, J. and Cardé, R. (eds) Sexual communication in moths. Chapter 20: 291-300.
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 Kost, S., Heckel, D. G., Yoshido, A., Marec, F., and Groot, A. T. (2016). AZ‐linked sterility locus causes sexual abstinence in hybrid females and facilitates speciation in Spodoptera frugiperda. Evolution, 70(6), 1418-1427. doi: 10.1111/evo.12940
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 Nagoshi, R. N. (2019). Evidence that a major subpopulation of fall armyworm found in the Western Hemisphere is rare or absent in Africa, which may limit the range of crops at risk of infestation. PloS one, 14(4). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208966
 Orsucci, M., Moné, Y., Audiot, P., Gimenez, S., Nhim, S., Naït-Saïdi, R., Frayssinet, M., Dumont, G., Boudon, J.-P., Vabre, M., Rialle, S., Koual, R., Kergoat, G. J., Nagoshi, R. N., Meagher, R. L., d’Alençon, E. and Nègre N. (2020) Transcriptional differences between the two host strains of Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). bioRxiv, 263186, ver. 2 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evol Biol. doi: 10.1101/263186
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