Plants and caterpillars make the same cyanide

Apr 13, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier report
The larva was stimulated to secrete defence droplets (marked by white circles) containing the two cyanogenic glucosides linamarin and lotaustralin. Scale bar, ~2 cm. Image credit: NPG, doi:10.1038/ncomms1271

(PhysOrg.com) -- With an amazing example of convergent evolution, Niels Bjerg Jensen of the University of Copenhagen published a report in Nature Communications discussing the bird's-foot trefoil plant and the burnet moth and their ability to produce cyanide.

Convergent evolution describes how two unrelated species acquire the same biological trait. In this case, Jensen discusses the cyanide-making abilities of both the plant and the caterpillars. While the poison in both is identical, as is the process they are made, both species abilities evolved separately, though using a similar trinity of genes.

The burnet is able to eat the cyanide leaves of the trefoil and scientists believed that this was how the caterpillar was able to store and use cyanide. However, raising these caterpillars on non-cyanide producing plants, they learned that the caterpillars were making their own.

Both the caterpillar and the plant create two cyanides, linamarin and lotaustralin, that are created from the same , valine and isoleucine. They knew that the trefoil used three genes to convert the amino acids into the cyanides and when they examined the skin of the caterpillars for similar genes, they discovered that the caterpillar utilizes a similar genetic trinity, though the in both the ’ and the ’ genes look nothing like the other.

Jensen also discovered that both species produce similar shaped proteins even though the genes are of different sequence. The genes of the caterpillar are more closely related to those found in the silkworm, while the within the trefoil are close to that of mustard cress.

While this is not the first example of convergent evolution across kingdoms, previous findings have found all others reaching that point via different chemical reactions, this discovery of the trefoil and caterpillar creating cyanide from amino acids using the identical chemical reactions is a first.

Explore further: Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

More information: Convergent evolution in biosynthesis of cyanogenic defence compounds in plants and insects, Nature Communications 2, Article number: 273 doi:10.1038/ncomms1271

Related Stories

'Cry for help' gene identified in plants

Jan 18, 2006

A genetic mechanism that enables corn plants to "cry for help" and attract beneficial insects has been clarified by scientists from the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the Max Planck Institute for ...

Genetic differences in clover make one type toxic

Oct 01, 2007

That clover necklace you make for your child could well be a ring of poison. That’s because some clovers have evolved genes that help the plant produce cyanide – to protect itself against little herbivores, such as snails, ...

Oak has secret weapon against caterpillar

May 31, 2010

A plague of caterpillars is munching its way through the leaves on our trees. Oak forests are suffering the most, reports the Nature Calendar. Cause for concern? Not according to entomologist and expert on insect pests, Leen ...

Caterpillars swarm Indonesia's Bali

Apr 13, 2011

Swarms of caterpillars which can cause skin rashes have invaded the Indonesian holiday island of Bali, an official said Wednesday, but tourist areas have not been affected so far.

Recommended for you

Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

23 hours ago

Male moths locate females by navigating along the latter's pheromone (odor) plume, often flying hundreds of meters to do so. Two strategies are involved to accomplish this: males must find the outer envelope ...

Godwits are flexible... when they get the chance

May 29, 2015

Black-tailed godwits are able to cope with unpredictable weather. This was revealed by a thorough analysis of the extraordinary spring of 2013 by ecologist Nathan Senner of the University of Groningen and ...

Do you have the time? Flies sure do

May 28, 2015

Flies might be smarter than you think. According to research reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 28, fruit flies know what time of day it is. What's more, the insects can learn to con ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.