Most phytophagous insects have morphological, behavioral and physiological adaptations allowing them to specialize on one or a few plant species. Identifying the mechanisms involved in host plant specialization is crucial to understand the role of divergent selection between different environments in species diversification, and to identify sustainable targets for the management of insect pest species. In the present study, we measured larval phenotypic and transcriptomic responses to host plants in two related phytophagous lepidopteran species: the European corn borer (ECB), a worldwide pest of maize, and the adzuki bean borer (ABB), which feeds of various dicotyledons. Our aim was to identify the genes and functions underlying host specialization and/or divergence between ECB and ABB.
At the phenotypic level, we observed contrasted patterns of survival, weight gain and developmental time between ECB and ABB, and within ECB and ABB reared on two different host plants. At the transcriptomic level, around 8% of the genes were differentially expressed (DE) between species and/or host plant. 70% of these DE genes displayed a divergent pattern of expression between ECB and ABB, regardless of the host, while the remaining 30% were involved in the plastic response between hosts. We further categorized plastic DE genes according to their parallel or opposite pattern between ECB and ABB to specifically identify candidate genes involved in the species divergence by host specialization. These candidates highlighted a comprehensive response, involving functions related to plant recognition, digestion, detoxification, immunity and development. Last, we detected viral, bacterial, and yeast genes whose incidence contrasted ECB and ABB samples, and maize and mugwort conditions. We suggest that these microorganism communities might influence the survival, metabolism and defense patterns observed in ECB and ABB larvae.
The comprehensive approach developed in the present study allowed to identify phenotypic specialization patterns and underlying candidate molecular mechanisms, and highlighted the putative role of microorganisms in the insect-host plant interaction. These findings offer the opportunity to pinpoint specific and sustainable molecular or physiological targets for the regulation of ECB pest populations.