Dietary sterols/steroids and the generalist caterpillar Helicoverpa zea: physiology, biochemistry and midgut gene expression. Academic Article uri icon


  • Sterols are essential nutrients for insects because, in contrast to mammals, no insect (or arthropod for that matter) can synthesize sterols de novo. Plant-feeding insects typically generate their sterols, commonly cholesterol, by metabolizing phytosterols. However, not all phytosterols are readily converted to cholesterol. In this study we examined, using artificial diets containing single sterols/steroids, how typical (cholesterol and stigmasterol) and atypical (cholestanol and cholestanone) sterols/steroids affect the performance of a generalist caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea). We also performed sterols/steroids analyses, using GC/MS techniques, to explore the metabolic fate of these different dietary sterols/steroids. Finally, we used a microarray approach to measure, and compare, midgut gene expression patterns that arise as a function of dietary sterols/steroids. In general, H.zea performed best on the cholesterol and stigmasterol diets, with cholesterol as the dominant tissue sterol on these two treatments. Compared to the cholesterol and stigmasterol diets, performance was reduced on the cholestanol and cholestanone diets; on these latter treatments stanols were the dominant tissue sterol. Finally, midgut gene expression patterns differed as a function of dietary sterol/steroid; using the cholesterol treatment as a reference, gene expression differences were smallest on stigmasterol, intermediate on cholestanol, and greatest on cholestanone. Inspection of our data revealed two broad insights. First, they identify a number of genes potentially involved in sterol/steroid metabolism and absorption. Second, they provide unique mechanistic insights into how variation in dietary sterol/steroid structure can affect insect herbivores.

published proceedings

  • Insect Biochem Mol Biol

author list (cited authors)

  • Jing, X., Vogel, H., Grebenok, R. J., Zhu-Salzman, K., & Behmer, S. T.

citation count

  • 27

complete list of authors

  • Jing, Xiangfeng||Vogel, Heiko||Grebenok, Robert J||Zhu-Salzman, Keyan||Behmer, Spencer T

publication date

  • November 2012