Sterol/steroid metabolism and absorption in a generalist and specialist caterpillar: effects of dietary sterol/steroid structure, mixture and ratio. Academic Article uri icon


  • Insects cannot synthesize sterols de novo, so they typically require a dietary source. Cholesterol is the dominant sterol in most insects, but because plants contain only small amounts of cholesterol, plant-feeding insects generate most of their cholesterol by metabolizing plant sterols. Plants almost always contain mixtures of different sterols, but some are not readily metabolized to cholesterol. Here we explore, in two separate experiments, how dietary phytosterols and phytosteroids, in different mixtures, ratios, and amounts, affect insect herbivore sterol/steroid metabolism and absorption; we use two caterpillars species - one a generalist (Heliothis virescens), the other a specialist (Manduca sexta). In our first experiment caterpillars were reared on two tobacco lines - one expressing a typical phystosterol profile, the other expressing high amounts/ratios of stanols and 3-ketosteroids. Caterpillars reared on the control tobacco contained mostly cholesterol, but those reared on the modified tobacco had reduced amounts of cholesterol, and lower total sterol/steroid body profiles. In our second experiment, caterpillars were reared on artificial diets containing known amounts of cholesterol, stigmasterol, cholestanol and/or cholestanone, either singly or in various combinations and ratios. Cholesterol and stigmasterol-reared moths were mostly cholesterol, while cholestanol-reared moths were mostly cholestanol. Moth tissue cholesterol concentration tended to decrease as the ratio of dietary cholestanol and/or cholestanone increased. In both moths cholestanone was metabolized into cholestanol and epicholestanol. Interestingly, M.sexta generated much more cholestanol than epicholestanol, while H.virescens did the opposite. Finally, total tissue steroid levels were significantly reduced in moths reared on diets containing very high levels of cholestanol. We discuss how dietary sterol/steroid structural differences are important with respect to sterol/steroid metabolism and uptake, including species-specific differences.

published proceedings

  • Insect Biochem Mol Biol

author list (cited authors)

  • Jing, X., Grebenok, R. J., & Behmer, S. T.

citation count

  • 34

complete list of authors

  • Jing, Xiangfeng||Grebenok, Robert J||Behmer, Spencer T

publication date

  • July 2013