Plant phloem sterol content: forms, putative functions, and implications for phloem-feeding insects.
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All eukaryotes contain sterols, which serve as structural components in cell membranes, and as precursors for important hormones. Plant vegetative tissues are known to contain mixtures of sterols, but very little is known about the sterol composition of phloem. Plants are food for many animals, but plant-feeding arthropods (including phloem-feeding insets) are unique among animals in that they have lost the ability to synthesize sterols, and must therefore acquire these essential nutrients from their food, or via endosymbionts. Our paper starts by providing a very brief overview of variation in plant sterol content, and how different sterols can affect insect herbivores, including those specializing on phloem. We then describe an experiment, where we bulk collected phloem sap exudate from bean and tobacco, and analyzed its sterol content. This approach revealed two significant observations concerning phloem sterols. First, the phloem exudate from each plant was found to contain sterols in three different fractions - free sterols, sterols conjugated to lipids (acylated), and sterols conjugated to carbohydrates (glycosylated). Second, for both plants, cholesterol was identified as the dominant sterol in each phloem exudate fraction; the remaining sterols in each fraction were a mixture of common phytosterols. We discuss our phloem exudate sterol profiles in a plant physiology/biochemistry context, and how it relates to the nutritional physiology/ecology of phloem-feeding insects. We close by proposing important next steps that will advance our knowledge concerning plant phloem sterol biology, and how phloem-sterol content might affect phloem-feeding insects.