Quantity versus quality: Effects of diet protein-carbohydrate ratios and amounts on insect herbivore gene expression. Academic Article uri icon


  • Dietary protein and digestible carbohydrates are two key macronutrients for insect herbivores, but the amounts and ratios of these two macronutrients in plant vegetative tissues can be highly variable. Typically, insect herbivores regulate their protein-carbohydrate intake by feeding selectively on nutritionally complementary plant tissues, but this may not always be possible. Interestingly, lab experiments consistently demonstrate that performance - especially growth and survival - does not vary greatly when caterpillars and nymphal grasshoppers are reared on diets that differ in their protein-carbohydrate content. This suggests insect herbivores employ post-ingestive physiological mechanisms to compensate for variation in diet protein-carbohydrate profile. However, the molecular mechanisms that underlie this compensation are not well understood. Here we explore, for the first time in an insect herbivore, the transcriptional effects of two dietary factors: protein-to-carbohydrate ratio (p:c) and total macronutrient (p+c) content. Specifically, we reared Helicoverpa zea caterpillars on three diets that varied in diet p:c ratio and one diet that varied in total p+c concentration, all within an ecologically-relevant range. We observed two key findings. Caterpillars reared on diets with elevated total p+c content showed large differences in gene expression. In contrast, only small differences in gene expression were observed when caterpillars were reared on diets with different p:c ratios (spanning from protein-biased to carbohydrate-biased). The invariable expression of many metabolic genes across these variable diets suggests that H. zea caterpillars employ a strategy of constitutive expression to deal with protein-carbohydrate imbalances rather than diet-specific changes. This is further supported by two findings. First, few genes were uniquely associated with feeding on a protein- and carbohydrate-biased diet. Second, many differentially-expressed genes were shared across protein-biased, carbohydrate-biased, and concentrated diet treatments. Our study provides insights into the post-ingestive physiological mechanisms insect herbivores employ to regulate protein-carbohydrate intake. Most notably, it suggests that H. zea, and perhaps other generalist species, use similar post-ingestive mechanisms to deal with protein-carbohydrate imbalances - regardless of the direction of the imbalance.

published proceedings

  • Insect Biochem Mol Biol

altmetric score

  • 3.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Deans, C. A., Sword, G. A., Vogel, H., & Behmer, S. T.

citation count

  • 1

complete list of authors

  • Deans, Carrie A||Sword, Gregory A||Vogel, Heiko||Behmer, Spencer T

publication date

  • January 2022