A moth and its flame: Mate selection found to evolve from response to flower odors

August 15, 2017, Oxford University Press

For moths, love is literally in the air through the action of pheromones to attract mates.

Virgin females release a perfumery concoction, specially blended to attract males from the same species, even over long distances.

To date, little is known on how males evolved to heed their siren's call.

In general, compounds in moths and other insects are detected by specialized receptors that generally do not respond to plant volatiles.

Pheromones and other odorants are detected by (ORs) expressed in olfactory sensory neurons found most prominently within the insect antennae.

In moths, there are four major groups of pheromones classified by their chemistry and how the compounds are biosynthesized. The pheromones of old lineages, Type 0, are thought to represent the ancestral state of moth pheromones. Type 0 pheromones all have short carbon chains and they are remarkably similar to many common plant volatiles.

Now for the first time, Jothi Yuvaraj and colleagues at Lund University, Sweden, have identified the corresponding pheromone receptors (PRs) from a primitive leafminer moth, called Eriocrania semipurpurella.

Then, they show that these receptors also respond to plant odors and propose a scenario in which pheromone receptors evolved from plant odor receptors.

"Our results suggest that PRs for Type 0 pheromones have evolved from ORs that detect structurally-related plant volatiles," said professor Christer Löfstedt. "They are unrelated to PRs detecting pheromones in advanced Lepidoptera, which, in turn, also independently may have evolved a novel function from ORs detecting plant volatiles."

The authors, therefore, propose that not only have the pheromone receptors of this basal moth evolved from ORs that recognize plant odorants but that the same might be true of the canonical pheromone receptors of more derived moths.

"Our results suggest that sex pheromone in Lepidoptera have evolved sex pheromone detecting functions from ORs detecting plant volatiles on multiple occasions," said Jothi Yuvaraj.

The new study advances our understanding of the evolution of moth pheromone sensory systems in general and primitive moths in particular.

Explore further: Researchers trap moths with plant-produced sex pheromone

More information: Multiple evolutionary transitions from plant volatile receptors to pheromone receptors within the Lepidoptera, Molecular Biology And Evolution (2017). DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msx215

Related Stories

What a moth's nose knows

January 27, 2016

Moths sniff out others of their own species using specific pheromone blends. So if you transplant an antenna—the nose, essentially—from one species to another, which blend of pheromones does the moth respond to? The donor ...

Some moths behave like butterflies to mate

April 28, 2016

A new study led by ICTA-UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) researcher Víctor Sarto and colleagues from the Institute of Advanced Chemistry of Catalonia (CSIC-IQAC) has described for the first time in two centuries ...

Video: The search for human pheromones

February 10, 2017

Molecules known as pheromones are a potent form of chemical communication in the animal kingdom, able to convey a creature's gender, fertility and more with scent alone. Scientists have sought to determine if humans' body ...

Choosing a mate—it's the brain, not the nose, that knows

October 4, 2016

How does a male moth find the right type of female for mating when there are two similar types luring him with their pheromones? In many species, differences in the antenna used by the male to smell these perfumes are responsible ...

Recommended for you

Keys found to bee-friendly neonics

March 22, 2018

Discovery of why two of the most economically important bee species are immune to one neonicotinoid insecticide but not to others promises to yield chemical treatments that protect crops from pests without harming these essential ...


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.