Plant defense against herbivory

Plant defense against herbivory or host-plant resistance (HPR) describes a range of adaptations evolved by plants which improve their survival and reproduction by reducing the impact of herbivores. Plants can sense being touched,[1] and they can use several strategies to defend against damage caused by herbivores. Many plants produce secondary metabolites, known as allelochemicals, that influence the behavior, growth, or survival of herbivores. These chemical defenses can act as repellents or toxins to herbivores, or reduce plant digestibility.

Other defensive strategies used by plants include escaping or avoiding herbivores in any time and/or any place, for example by growing in a location where plants are not easily found or accessed by herbivores, or by changing seasonal growth patterns. Another approach diverts herbivores toward eating non-essential parts, or enhances the ability of a plant to recover from the damage caused by herbivory. Some plants encourage the presence of natural enemies of herbivores, which in turn protect the plant. Each type of defense can be either constitutive (always present in the plant), or induced (produced in reaction to damage or stress caused by herbivores).

Historically, insects have been the most significant herbivores, and the evolution of land plants is closely associated with the evolution of insects. While most plant defenses are directed against insects, other defenses have evolved that are aimed at vertebrate herbivores, such as birds and mammals. The study of plant defenses against herbivory is important, not only from an evolutionary view point, but also in the direct impact that these defenses have on agriculture, including human and livestock food sources; as beneficial 'biological control agents' in biological pest control programs; as well as in the search for plants of medical importance.

Foxgloves produce toxic chemicals including cardiac and steroidal glycosides, deterring herbivory.

Evolution of defensive traits

Timeline of plant evolution and the beginnings of different modes of insect herbivory

The earliest land plants evolved from aquatic plants around 450 million years ago (Ma) in the Ordovician period. Many plants have adapted to iodine-deficient terrestrial environment by removing iodine from their metabolism, in fact iodine is essential only for animal cells.[2] An important antiparasitic action is caused by the block of the transport of iodide of animal cells inhibiting sodium-iodide symporter (NIS). Many plant pesticides are glycosides (as the cardiac digitoxin) and cyanogenic glycosides which liberate cyanide, which, blocking cytochrome c oxidase and NIS, is poisonous only for a large part of parasites and herbivores and not for the plant cells in which it seems useful in seed dormancy phase. Iodide is not pesticide, but is oxidized, by vegetable peroxidase, to iodine, which is a strong oxidant, it is able to kill bacteria, fungi and protozoa.[3]

The Cretaceous period saw the appearance of more plant defense mechanisms. The diversification of flowering plants (angiosperms) at that time is associated with the sudden burst of speciation in insects.[4] This diversification of insects represented a major selective force in plant evolution, and led to selection of plants that had defensive adaptations. Early insect herbivores were mandibulate and bit or chewed vegetation; but the evolution of vascular plants lead to the co-evolution of other forms of herbivory, such as sap-sucking, leaf mining, gall forming and nectar-feeding.[5]

The relative abundance of different species of plants in ecological communities including forests and grasslands may be determined in part by the level of defensive compounds in the different species.[6] Since the cost of replacement of damaged leaves is higher in conditions where resources are scarce, it may also be that plants growing in areas where water and nutrients are scarce may invest more resources into anti-herbivore defenses.

Records of herbivores

Viburnum lesquereuxii leaf with insect damage; Dakota Sandstone (Cretaceous) of Ellsworth County, Kansas. Scale bar is 10 mm.

Our understanding of herbivory in geological time comes from three sources: fossilized plants, which may preserve evidence of defense (such as spines), or herbivory-related damage; the observation of plant debris in fossilised animal faeces; and the construction of herbivore mouthparts.[7]

Long thought to be a Mesozoic phenomenon, evidence for herbivory is found almost as soon as fossils which could show it. As previously discussed, the first land plants emerged around 450 million years ago; however, herbivory, and therefore the need for plant defenses, has undoubtedly been around for longer. Herbivory first evolved due to marine organisms within ancient lakes and oceans.[8] Within under 20 million years of the first fossils of sporangia and stems towards the close of the Silurian, around 420 million years ago, there is evidence that they were being consumed.[9] Animals fed on the spores of early Devonian plants, and the Rhynie chert also provides evidence that organisms fed on plants using a "pierce and suck" technique.[7] Many plants of this time are preserved with spine-like enations, which may have performed a defensive role before being co-opted to develop into leaves.

During the ensuing 75 million years, plants evolved a range of more complex organs – from roots to seeds. There was a gap of 50 to 100 million years between each organ evolving, and it being fed upon.[9] Hole feeding and skeletonization are recorded in the early Permian, with surface fluid feeding evolving by the end of that period.[7]

Plain tiger moat
A plain tiger Danaus chrysippus caterpillar making a moat to block defensive chemicals of Calotropis before feeding


Herbivores are dependent on plants for food, and have evolved mechanisms to obtain this food despite the evolution of a diverse arsenal of plant defenses. Herbivore adaptations to plant defense have been likened to offensive traits and consist of adaptations that allow increased feeding and use of a host plant.[10] Relationships between herbivores and their host plants often results in reciprocal evolutionary change, called co-evolution. When an herbivore eats a plant it selects for plants that can mount a defensive response. In cases where this relationship demonstrates specificity (the evolution of each trait is due to the other), and reciprocity (both traits must evolve), the species are thought to have co-evolved.[11]

The "escape and radiation" mechanism for co-evolution presents the idea that adaptations in herbivores and their host plants have been the driving force behind speciation,[4][12] and have played a role in the radiation of insect species during the age of angiosperms.[13] Some herbivores have evolved ways to hijack plant defenses to their own benefit, by sequestering these chemicals and using them to protect themselves from predators.[4] Plant defenses against herbivores are generally not complete so plants also tend to evolve some tolerance to herbivory.


Plant defenses can be classified generally as constitutive or induced. Constitutive defenses are always present in the plant, while induced defenses are produced or mobilized to the site where a plant is injured. There is wide variation in the composition and concentration of constitutive defenses and these range from mechanical defenses to digestibility reducers and toxins. Many external mechanical defenses and large quantitative defenses are constitutive, as they require large amounts of resources to produce and are difficult to mobilize.[14] A variety of molecular and biochemical approaches are used to determine the mechanism of constitutive and induced plant defenses responses against herbivory.[15][16][17][18]

Induced defenses include secondary metabolic products, as well as morphological and physiological changes.[19] An advantage of inducible, as opposed to constitutive defenses, is that they are only produced when needed, and are therefore potentially less costly, especially when herbivory is variable.[19] Modes of induced defence include systemic acquired resistance[20] and plant-induced systemic resistance.[21]

Chemical defenses

Diospyros kaki fruit
Persimmon, genus Diospyros, has a high tannin content which gives immature fruit, seen above, an astringent and bitter flavor.

The evolution of chemical defenses in plants is linked to the emergence of chemical substances that are not involved in the essential photosynthetic and metabolic activities. These substances, secondary metabolites, are organic compounds that are not directly involved in the normal growth, development or reproduction of organisms,[22] and often produced as by-products during the synthesis of primary metabolic products.[23] Although these secondary metabolites have been thought to play a major role in defenses against herbivores,[4][22][24] a meta-analysis of recent relevant studies has suggested that they have either a more minimal (when compared to other non-secondary metabolites, such as primary chemistry and physiology) or more complex involvement in defense.[25]

Qualitative and quantitative metabolites

Secondary metabolites are often characterized as either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative metabolites are defined as toxins that interfere with a herbivore's metabolism, often by blocking specific biochemical reactions. Qualitative chemicals are present in plants in relatively low concentrations (often less than 2% dry weight), and are not dosage dependent. They are usually small, water-soluble molecules, and therefore can be rapidly synthesized, transported and stored with relatively little energy cost to the plant. Qualitative allelochemicals are usually effective against non-adapted generalist herbivores.

Quantitative chemicals are those that are present in high concentration in plants (5 – 40% dry weight) and are equally effective against all specialists and generalist herbivores. Most quantitative metabolites are digestibility reducers that make plant cell walls indigestible to animals. The effects of quantitative metabolites are dosage dependent and the higher these chemicals’ proportion in the herbivore’s diet, the less nutrition the herbivore can gain from ingesting plant tissues. Because they are typically large molecules, these defenses are energetically expensive to produce and maintain, and often take longer to synthesize and transport.[26]

The geranium, for example, produces a unique chemical compound in its petals to defend itself from Japanese beetles. Within 30 minutes of ingestion the chemical paralyzes the herbivore. While the chemical usually wears off within a few hours, during this time the beetle is often consumed by its own predators.[27]

Antiherbivory compounds

Plants have evolved many secondary metabolites involved in plant defense, which are collectively known as antiherbivory compounds and can be classified into three sub-groups: nitrogen compounds (including alkaloids, cyanogenic glycosides, glucosinolates and benzoxazinoids), terpenoids, and phenolics.[28]

Alkaloids are derived from various amino acids. Over 3000 known alkaloids exist, examples include nicotine, caffeine, morphine, cocaine, colchicine, ergolines, strychnine, and quinine.[29] Alkaloids have pharmacological effects on humans and other animals. Some alkaloids can inhibit or activate enzymes, or alter carbohydrate and fat storage by inhibiting the formation phosphodiester bonds involved in their breakdown.[30] Certain alkaloids bind to nucleic acids and can inhibit synthesis of proteins and affect DNA repair mechanisms. Alkaloids can also affect cell membrane and cytoskeletal structure causing the cells to weaken, collapse, or leak, and can affect nerve transmission.[31] Although alkaloids act on a diversity of metabolic systems in humans and other animals, they almost uniformly invoke an aversively bitter taste.[32]

Cyanogenic glycosides are stored in inactive forms in plant vacuoles. They become toxic when herbivores eat the plant and break cell membranes allowing the glycosides to come into contact with enzymes in the cytoplasm releasing hydrogen cyanide which blocks cellular respiration.[33] Glucosinolates are activated in much the same way as cyanogenic glucosides, and the products can cause gastroenteritis, salivation, diarrhea, and irritation of the mouth.[32] Benzoxazinoids, secondary defence metabolites, which are characteristic for grasses (Poaceae), are also stored as inactive glucosides in the plant vacuole.[34] Upon tissue disruption they get into contact with β-glucosidases from the chloroplasts, which enzymatically release the toxic aglucones. Whereas some benzoxazinoids are constitutively present, others are only synthesised following herbivore infestation, and thus, considered inducible plant defenses against herbivory.[35]

The terpenoids, sometimes referred to as isoprenoids, are organic chemicals similar to terpenes, derived from five-carbon isoprene units. There are over 10,000 known types of terpenoids.[36] Most are multicyclic structures which differ from one another in both functional groups, and in basic carbon skeletons.[37] Monoterpenoids, continuing 2 isoprene units, are volatile essential oils such as citronella, limonene, menthol, camphor, and pinene. Diterpenoids, 4 isoprene units, are widely distributed in latex and resins, and can be quite toxic. Diterpenes are responsible for making Rhododendron leaves poisonous. Plant steroids and sterols are also produced from terpenoid precursors, including vitamin D, glycosides (such as digitalis) and saponins (which lyse red blood cells of herbivores).[38]

Phenolics, sometimes called phenols, consist of an aromatic 6-carbon ring bonded to a hydroxy group. Some phenols have antiseptic properties, while others disrupt endocrine activity. Phenolics range from simple tannins to the more complex flavonoids that give plants much of their red, blue, yellow, and white pigments. Complex phenolics called polyphenols are capable of producing many different types of effects on humans, including antioxidant properties. Some examples of phenolics used for defense in plants are: lignin, silymarin and cannabinoids.[39] Condensed tannins, polymers composed of 2 to 50 (or more) flavonoid molecules, inhibit herbivore digestion by binding to consumed plant proteins and making them more difficult for animals to digest, and by interfering with protein absorption and digestive enzymes.[40]

In addition, some plants use fatty acid derivates, amino acids and even peptides[41] as defenses. The cholinergic toxine, cicutoxin of water hemlock, is a polyyne derived from the fatty acid metabolism.[42] β-N-Oxalyl-L-α,β-diaminopropionic acid as simple amino acid is used by the sweet pea which leads also to intoxication in humans.[43] The synthesis of fluoroacetate in several plants is an example of the use of small molecules to disrupt the metabolism of herbivores, in this case the citric acid cycle.[44]

In tropical Sargassum and Turbinaria species that are often preferentially consumed by herbivorous fishes and echinoids, there is a relatively low level of phenolics and tannins.[45]

Mechanical defenses

Raspberry cane - closeup in winter - P.2005.03
The prickles on the stem of this raspberry plant, serve as a mechanical defense against herbivory.

Many plants have external structural defenses that discourage herbivory. Structural defenses can be described as morphological or physical traits that give the plant a fitness advantage by deterring herbivores from feeding.[46] Depending on the herbivore's physical characteristics (i.e. size and defensive armor), plant structural defenses on stems and leaves can deter, injure, or kill the grazer. Some defensive compounds are produced internally but are released onto the plant's surface; for example, resins, lignins, silica, and wax cover the epidermis of terrestrial plants and alter the texture of the plant tissue. The leaves of holly plants, for instance, are very smooth and slippery making feeding difficult. Some plants produce gummosis or sap that traps insects.[47]

Spines and thorns

A plant's leaves and stem may be covered with sharp prickles, spines, thorns, or trichomes- hairs on the leaf often with barbs, sometimes containing irritants or poisons. Plant structural features like spines and thorns reduce feeding by large ungulate herbivores (e.g. kudu, impala, and goats) by restricting the herbivores' feeding rate, or by wearing down the molars.[48] Trichomes are frequently associated with lower rates of plant tissue digestion by insect herbivores. [46] Raphides are sharp needles of calcium oxalate or calcium carbonate in plant tissues, making ingestion painful, damaging a herbivore's mouth and gullet and causing more efficient delivery of the plant's toxins. The structure of a plant, its branching and leaf arrangement may also be evolved to reduce herbivore impact. The shrubs of New Zealand have evolved special wide branching adaptations believed to be a response to browsing birds such as the moas.[49] Similarly, African Acacias have long spines low in the canopy, but very short spines high in the canopy, which is comparatively safe from herbivores such as giraffes.[50][51]

Cocos nucifera - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-187
Coconut palms protect their fruit by surrounding it with multiple layers of armor.

Trees such as palms protect their fruit by multiple layers of armor, needing efficient tools to break through to the seed contents. Some plants, notably the grasses, use indigestible silica (and many plants use other relatively indigestible materials such as lignin) to defend themselves against vertebrate and invertebrate herbivores.[52] Plants take up silicon from the soil and deposit it in their tissues in the form of solid silica phytoliths. These mechanically reduce the digestibility of plant tissue, causing rapid wear to vertebrate teeth and insect mandibles,[53] and are effective against herbivores above and below ground.[54] The mechanism may offer future sustainable pest control strategies.[55]

Thigmonastic movements

Thigmonastic movements, those that occur in response to touch, are used as a defense in some plants. The leaves of the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica, close up rapidly in response to direct touch, vibration, or even electrical and thermal stimuli. The proximate cause of this mechanical response is an abrupt change in the turgor pressure in the pulvini at the base of leaves resulting from osmotic phenomena. This is then spread via both electrical and chemical means through the plant; only a single leaflet need be disturbed. This response lowers the surface area available to herbivores, which are presented with the underside of each leaflet, and results in a wilted appearance. It may also physically dislodge small herbivores, such as insects.[56]

Mimicry and camouflage

Some plants mimic the presence of insect eggs on their leaves, dissuading insect species from laying their eggs there. Because female butterflies are less likely to lay their eggs on plants that already have butterfly eggs, some species of neotropical vines of the genus Passiflora (Passion flowers) contain physical structures resembling the yellow eggs of Heliconius butterflies on their leaves, which discourage oviposition by butterflies.[57]

Indirect defenses

The large and directly defensive thorn-like stipules of Vachellia collinsii are also hollow and offer shelter for ants, which indirectly protect the plant against herbivores.

Another category of plant defenses are those features that indirectly protect the plant by enhancing the probability of attracting the natural enemies of herbivores. Such an arrangement is known as mutualism, in this case of the "enemy of my enemy" variety. One such feature are semiochemicals, given off by plants. Semiochemicals are a group of volatile organic compounds involved in interactions between organisms. One group of semiochemicals are allelochemicals; consisting of allomones, which play a defensive role in interspecies communication, and kairomones, which are used by members of higher trophic levels to locate food sources. When a plant is attacked it releases allelochemics containing an abnormal ratio of these herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs).[58][59] Predators sense these volatiles as food cues, attracting them to the damaged plant, and to feeding herbivores. The subsequent reduction in the number of herbivores confers a fitness benefit to the plant and demonstrates the indirect defensive capabilities of semiochemicals.[60] Induced volatiles also have drawbacks, however; some studies have suggested that these volatiles attract herbivores.[58]

Plants sometimes provide housing and food items for natural enemies of herbivores, known as "biotic" defense mechanisms, as a means to maintain their presence. For example, trees from the genus Macaranga have adapted their thin stem walls to create ideal housing for an ant species (genus Crematogaster), which, in turn, protects the plant from herbivores.[61] In addition to providing housing, the plant also provides the ant with its exclusive food source; from the food bodies produced by the plant. Similarly, several Acacia tree species have developed stipular spines (direct defenses) that are swollen at the base, forming a hollow structure that provides housing for protective ants. These Acacia trees also produce nectar in extrafloral nectaries on their leaves as food for the ants.[62]

Plant use of endophytic fungi in defense is common. Most plants have endophytes, microbial organisms that live within them. While some cause disease, others protect plants from herbivores and pathogenic microbes. Endophytes can help the plant by producing toxins harmful to other organisms that would attack the plant, such as alkaloid producing fungi which are common in grasses such as tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea).[56]

Leaf shedding and color

There have been suggestions that leaf shedding may be a response that provides protection against diseases and certain kinds of pests such as leaf miners and gall forming insects.[63] Other responses such as the change of leaf colors prior to fall have also been suggested as adaptations that may help undermine the camouflage of herbivores.[64] Autumn leaf color has also been suggested to act as an honest warning signal of defensive commitment towards insect pests that migrate to the trees in autumn.[65][66]

Costs and benefits

Defensive structures and chemicals are costly as they require resources that could otherwise be used by plants to maximize growth and reproduction. Many models have been proposed to explore how and why some plants make this investment in defenses against herbivores.

Optimal defense hypothesis

The optimal defense hypothesis attempts to explain how the kinds of defenses a particular plant might use reflect the threats each individual plant faces.[67] This model considers three main factors, namely: risk of attack, value of the plant part, and the cost of defense.[68][69]

The first factor determining optimal defense is risk: how likely is it that a plant or certain plant parts will be attacked? This is also related to the plant apparency hypothesis, which states that a plant will invest heavily in broadly effective defenses when the plant is easily found by herbivores.[70] Examples of apparent plants that produce generalized protections include long-living trees, shrubs, and perennial grasses.[70] Unapparent plants, such as short-lived plants of early successional stages, on the other hand, preferentially invest in small amounts of qualitative toxins that are effective against all but the most specialized herbivores.[70]

The second factor is the value of protection: would the plant be less able to survive and reproduce after removal of part of its structure by a herbivore? Not all plant parts are of equal evolutionary value, thus valuable parts contain more defenses. A plant’s stage of development at the time of feeding also affects the resulting change in fitness. Experimentally, the fitness value of a plant structure is determined by removing that part of the plant and observing the effect.[71] In general, reproductive parts are not as easily replaced as vegetative parts, terminal leaves have greater value than basal leaves, and the loss of plant parts mid-season has a greater negative effect on fitness than removal at the beginning or end of the season.[72][73] Seeds in particular tend to be very well protected. For example, the seeds of many edible fruits and nuts contain cyanogenic glycosides such as amygdalin. This results from the need to balance the effort needed to make the fruit attractive to animal dispersers while ensuring that the seeds are not destroyed by the animal.[74][75]

The final consideration is cost: how much will a particular defensive strategy cost a plant in energy and materials? This is particularly important, as energy spent on defense cannot be used for other functions, such as reproduction and growth. The optimal defense hypothesis predicts that plants will allocate more energy towards defense when the benefits of protection outweigh the costs, specifically in situations where there is high herbivore pressure.[76]

Carbon:nutrient balance hypothesis

The carbon:nutrient balance hypothesis, also known as the environmental constraint hypothesis or Carbon Nutrient Balance Model (CNBM), states that the various types of plant defenses are responses to variations in the levels of nutrients in the environment.[77][78] This hypothesis predicts the Carbon/Nitrogen ratio in plants determines which secondary metabolites will be synthesized. For example, plants growing in nitrogen-poor soils will use carbon-based defenses (mostly digestibility reducers), while those growing in low-carbon environments (such as shady conditions) are more likely to produce nitrogen-based toxins. The hypothesis further predicts that plants can change their defenses in response to changes in nutrients. For example, if plants are grown in low-nitrogen conditions, then these plants will implement a defensive strategy composed of constitutive carbon-based defenses. If nutrient levels subsequently increase, by for example the addition of fertilizers, these carbon-based defenses will decrease.

Growth rate hypothesis

The growth rate hypothesis, also known as the resource availability hypothesis, states that defense strategies are determined by the inherent growth rate of the plant, which is in turn determined by the resources available to the plant. A major assumption is that available resources are the limiting factor in determining the maximum growth rate of a plant species. This model predicts that the level of defense investment will increase as the potential of growth decreases.[79] Additionally, plants in resource-poor areas, with inherently slow-growth rates, tend to have long-lived leaves and twigs, and the loss of plant appendages may result in a loss of scarce and valuable nutrients.[80]

A recent test of this model involved a reciprocal transplants of seedlings of 20 species of trees between clay soils (nutrient rich) and white sand (nutrient poor) to determine whether trade-offs between growth rate and defenses restrict species to one habitat. When planted in white sand and protected from herbivores, seedlings originating from clay outgrew those originating from the nutrient-poor sand, but in the presence of herbivores the seedlings originating from white sand performed better, likely due to their higher levels of constitutive carbon-based defenses. These finding suggest that defensive strategies limit the habitats of some plants.[81]

Growth-differentiation balance hypothesis

The growth-differentiation balance hypothesis states that plant defenses are a result of a tradeoff between "growth-related processes" and "differentiation-related processes" in different environments.[82] Differentiation-related processes are defined as "processes that enhance the structure or function of existing cells (i.e. maturation and specialization)."[67] A plant will produce chemical defenses only when energy is available from photosynthesis, and plants with the highest concentrations of secondary metabolites are the ones with an intermediate level of available resources.[82]

The GDBH also accounts for tradeoffs between growth and defense over a resource availability gradient. In situations where resources (e.g. water and nutrients) limit photosynthesis, carbon supply is predicted to limit both growth and defense. As resource availability increases, the requirements needed to support photosynthesis are met, allowing for accumulation of carbohydrate in tissues. As resources are not sufficient to meet the large demands of growth, these carbon compounds can instead be partitioned into the synthesis of carbon based secondary metabolites (phenolics, tannins, etc.). In environments where the resource demands for growth are met, carbon is allocated to rapidly dividing meristems (high sink strength) at the expense of secondary metabolism. Thus rapidly growing plants are predicted to contain lower levels of secondary metabolites and vice versa. In addition, the tradeoff predicted by the GDBH may change over time, as evidenced by a recent study on Salix spp. Much support for this hypothesis is present in the literature, and some scientists consider the GDBH the most mature of the plant defense hypotheses.

Importance to humans


The variation of plant susceptibility to pests was probably known even in the early stages of agriculture in humans. In historic times, the observation of such variations in susceptibility have provided solutions for major socio-economic problems. The hemipteran pest insect phylloxera was introduced from North America to France in 1860 and in 25 years it destroyed nearly a third (100,000 km²) of French vineyards. Charles Valentine Riley noted that the American species Vitis labrusca was resistant to Phylloxera. Riley, with J. E. Planchon, helped save the French wine industry by suggesting the grafting of the susceptible but high quality grapes onto Vitis labrusca root stocks.[83] The formal study of plant resistance to herbivory was first covered extensively in 1951 by Reginald Henry Painter, who is widely regarded as the founder of this area of research, in his book Plant Resistance to Insects.[84] While this work pioneered further research in the US, the work of Chesnokov was the basis of further research in the USSR.[85]

Fresh growth of grass is sometimes high in prussic acid content and can cause poisoning of grazing livestock. The production of cyanogenic chemicals in grasses is primarily a defense against herbivores.[86][87]

The human innovation of cooking may have been particularly helpful in overcoming many of the defensive chemicals of plants. Many enzyme inhibitors in cereal grains and pulses, such as trypsin inhibitors prevalent in pulse crops, are denatured by cooking, making them digestible.[88][89]

It has been known since the late 17th century that plants contain noxious chemicals which are avoided by insects. These chemicals have been used by man as early insecticides; in 1690 nicotine was extracted from tobacco and used as a contact insecticide. In 1773, insect infested plants were treated with nicotine fumigation by heating tobacco and blowing the smoke over the plants.[90] The flowers of Chrysanthemum species contain pyrethrin which is a potent insecticide. In later years, the applications of plant resistance became an important area of research in agriculture and plant breeding, particularly because they can serve as a safe and low-cost alternative to the use of pesticides.[91] The important role of secondary plant substances in plant defense was described in the late 1950s by Vincent Dethier and G.S. Fraenkel.[22][92] The use of botanical pesticides is widespread and notable examples include Azadirachtin from the neem (Azadirachta indica), d-Limonene from Citrus species, Rotenone from Derris, Capsaicin from chili pepper and Pyrethrum.[93]

Natural materials found in the environment also induce plant resistance as well.[94] Chitosan derived from chitin induce a plant's natural defense response against pathogens, diseases and insects including cyst nematodes, both are approved as biopesticides by the EPA to reduce the dependence on toxic pesticides.

The selective breeding of crop plants often involves selection against the plant's intrinsic resistance strategies. This makes crop plant varieties particularly susceptible to pests unlike their wild relatives. In breeding for host-plant resistance, it is often the wild relatives that provide the source of resistance genes. These genes are incorporated using conventional approaches to plant breeding, but have also been augmented by recombinant techniques, which allow introduction of genes from completely unrelated organisms. The most famous transgenic approach is the introduction of genes from the bacterial species, Bacillus thuringiensis, into plants. The bacterium produces proteins that, when ingested, kill lepidopteran caterpillars. The gene encoding for these highly toxic proteins, when introduced into the host plant genome, confers resistance against caterpillars, when the same toxic proteins are produced within the plant. This approach is controversial, however, due to the possibility of ecological and toxicological side effects.[95]


Mandragora Tacuinum Sanitatis
Illustration from the 15th-century manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis detailing the beneficial and harmful properties of Mandrakes

Many currently available pharmaceuticals are derived from the secondary metabolites plants use to protect themselves from herbivores, including opium, aspirin, cocaine, and atropine.[96] These chemicals have evolved to affect the biochemistry of insects in very specific ways. However, many of these biochemical pathways are conserved in vertebrates, including humans, and the chemicals act on human biochemistry in ways similar to that of insects. It has therefore been suggested that the study of plant-insect interactions may help in bioprospecting.[97]

There is evidence that humans began using plant alkaloids in medical preparations as early as 3000 B.C.[30] Although the active components of most medicinal plants have been isolated only recently (beginning in the early 19th century) these substances have been used as drugs throughout the human history in potions, medicines, teas and as poisons. For example, to combat herbivory by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, Cinchona trees produce a variety of alkaloids, the most familiar of which is quinine. Quinine is extremely bitter, making the bark of the tree quite unpalatable, it is also an anti-fever agent, known as Jesuit's bark, and is especially useful in treating malaria.[98]

Throughout history mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum) have been highly sought after for their reputed aphrodisiac properties. However, the roots of the mandrake plant also contain large quantities of the alkaloid scopolamine, which, at high doses, acts as a central nervous system depressant, and makes the plant highly toxic to herbivores. Scopolamine was later found to be medicinally used for pain management prior to and during labor; in smaller doses it is used to prevent motion sickness.[99] One of the most well-known medicinally valuable terpenes is an anticancer drug, taxol, isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, in the early 1960s.[100]

Biological pest control

Repellent companion planting, defensive live fencing hedges, and "obstructive-repellent" interplanting, with host-plant resistance species as beneficial 'biological control agents' is a technique in biological pest control programs for: organic gardening, wildlife gardening, sustainable gardening, and sustainable landscaping; in organic farming and sustainable agriculture; and in restoration ecology methods for habitat restoration projects.

See also



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External links


Allelopathy is a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces one or more biochemicals that influence the germination, growth, survival, and reproduction of other organisms. These biochemicals are known as allelochemicals and can have beneficial (positive allelopathy) or detrimental (negative allelopathy) effects on the target organisms and the community. Allelochemicals are a subset of secondary metabolites, which are not required for metabolism (i.e. growth, development and reproduction) of the allelopathic organism. Allelochemicals with negative allelopathic effects are an important part of plant defense against herbivory.The production of allelochemicals are affected by biotic factors such as nutrients available, and abiotic factors such as temperature and pH.

Allelopathy is characteristic of certain plants, algae, bacteria, coral, and fungi. Allelopathic interactions are an important factor in determining species distribution and abundance within plant communities, and are also thought to be important in the success of many invasive plants. For specific examples, see black crowberry (Empetrum hermaphroditum), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Casuarina/Allocasuarina spp., and nutsedge.

The process by which a plant acquires more of the available resources (such as nutrients, water or light) from the environment without any chemical action on the surrounding plants is called resource competition. This process is not negative allelopathy, although both processes can act together to enhance the survival rate of the plant species.


Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Nutrition studies focus on these antinutrients commonly found in food sources and beverages.

Cascade effect (ecology)

An ecological cascade effect is a series of secondary extinctions that is triggered by the primary extinction of a key species in an ecosystem. Secondary extinctions are likely to occur when the threatened species are: dependent on a few specific food sources, mutualistic (dependent on the key species in some way), or forced to coexist with an invasive species that is introduced to the ecosystem. Species introductions to a foreign ecosystem can often devastate entire communities, and even entire ecosystems. These exotic species monopolize the ecosystem's resources, and since they have no natural predators to decrease their growth, they are able to increase indefinitely. Olsen et al. showed that exotic species have caused lake and estuary ecosystems to go through cascade effects due to loss of algae, crayfish, mollusks, fish, amphibians, and birds. However, the principal cause of cascade effects is the loss of top predators as the key species. As a result of this loss, a dramatic increase (ecological release) of prey species occurs. The prey is then able to overexploit its own food resources, until the population numbers decrease in abundance, which can lead to extinction. When the prey's food resources disappear, they starve and may go extinct as well. If the prey species is herbivorous, then their initial release and exploitation of the plants may result in a loss of plant biodiversity in the area. If other organisms in the ecosystem also depend upon these plants as food resources, then these species may go extinct as well. An example of the cascade effect caused by the loss of a top predator is apparent in tropical forests. When hunters cause local extinctions of top predators, the predators' prey's population numbers increase, causing an overexploitation of a food resource and a cascade effect of species loss. Recent studies have been performed on approaches to mitigate extinction cascades in food-web networks.

Druse (botany)

A druse is a group of crystals of calcium oxalate, silicates, or carbonates present in plants, and are thought to be a defense against herbivory due to their toxicity. Calcium oxalate (Ca(COO)2, CaOx) crystals are found in algae, angiosperms and gymnosperms in a total of more than 215 families. These plants accumulate oxalate in the range of 3–80% (w/w) of their dry weight through a biomineralization process in a variety of shapes. Araceae have numerous druses, multi-crystal druses and needle-shaped raphide crystals of CaOx present in the tissue. Druses are also found in leaves and bud scales of Prunus, Rosa, Allium, Vitis, Morus and Phaseolus.


The Ebenaceae are a family of flowering plants belonging to order Ericales. It includes ebony and persimmon among about 768 species of trees and shrubs. The family is distributed across the tropical and warmer temperate regions of the world. The family is most diverse in the rainforests of Malesia, India, tropical Africa and tropical America.

Many species are valued for their wood, particularly ebony, for fruit, and as ornamental plants.

Floral scent

Floral scent or flower scent is composed of all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or aroma compounds, emitted by floral tissue (e.g. flower petals). Floral scent is also referred to as aroma, fragrance, floral odour or perfume. Flower scent of most flowering plant species encompass a diversity of VOCs, sometimes up to several hundred different compounds. The primary functions of floral scent are to deter herbivorous and especially florivorous insects (see Plant defense against herbivory), and to attract pollinators. Floral scent is one of the most important communication channels mediating plant-pollinator interactions, along with visual cues (flower color, shape, etc.).


An idioblast is an isolated plant cell that differs from neighboring tissues. They have various functions such as storage of reserves, excretory materials, pigments, and minerals. They could contain oil, latex, gum, resin, tannin or pigments etc. Some can contain mineral crystals such as acrid tasting and poisonous calcium oxalate or carbonate or silica.

Any of the tissue or tissue systems of plants can contain idioblasts.

Idioblasts are divided into three main categories: excretory, tracheoid, and sclerenchymatous.

Idioblasts can contain biforine cells that form crystals. The chemicals are excreted by the plant and stored in liquid or crystalline form. In bundles they are known as druse and as crystals they can be of raphide [needle] form. When the end of an idioblast is broken the crystals or other substance is ejected by internal water pressure. Idioblasts of calcium oxalate may function as a deterrent to herbivores, as a means of sequestering or storing calcium, or as a means of stiffening tissue structure.


Jasmonate (JA) and its derivatives are lipid-based plant hormones that regulate a wide range of processes in plants, ranging from growth and photosynthesis to reproductive development. In particular, JAs are critical for plant defense against herbivory and plant responses to poor environmental conditions and other kinds of abiotic and biotic challenges. Some JAs can also be released as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to permit communication between plants in anticipation of mutual dangers.The isolation of methyl jasmonate from jasmine oil derived from Jasminum grandiflorum led to the discovery of the molecular structure of jasmonates and their name.


Latex is a stable dispersion (emulsion) of polymer microparticles in an aqueous medium. It is found in nature, but synthetic latexes can be made by polymerizing a monomer such as styrene that has been emulsified with surfactants.

Latex as found in nature is a milky fluid found in 10% of all flowering plants (angiosperms). It is a complex emulsion consisting of proteins, alkaloids, starches, sugars, oils, tannins, resins, and gums that coagulate on exposure to air. It is usually exuded after tissue injury. In most plants, latex is white, but some have yellow, orange, or scarlet latex. Since the 17th century, latex has been used as a term for the fluid substance in plants. It serves mainly as defense against herbivorous insects. Latex is not to be confused with plant sap; it is a separate substance, separately produced, and with separate functions.

The word latex is also used to refer to natural latex rubber, particularly non-vulcanized rubber. Such is the case in products like latex gloves, latex condoms and latex clothing.

Originally, the name given to latex by indigenous Equator tribes who cultivated the plant was “caoutchouc”, from the words “caa” (tear) and “ochu” (tree), because of the way it is collected.


A laticifer is a type of elongated secretory cell found in the leaves and/or stems of plants that produce latex and rubber as secondary metabolites. Laticifers may be divided into:

Articulated laticifers, i.e., composed of a series of cells joined together, or

Non-articulated laticifers, consisting of one long coenocytic cell.Non-articulated laticifers begin their growth from the meristematic tissue of the embryo, termed the laticifer initial, and can exhibit continual growth throughout the lifetime of the plant. Laticifer tubes have irregularly edged walls and a larger inner diameter than the surrounding parenchyma cells. In the development of the cell, elongation occurs via karyokinesis and no cell plate develops resulting in coenocytic cells which extend throughout the plant. These cells can reach up to tens of centimeters long and can be branched or unbranched.

They are thought to have a role in wound healing and as defense against herbivory, as well as pathogen defense, and are often used for taxonomy.

Laticifers were first described by H. A. de Barry in 1877.

Laticifers are highly specialized cells which can produce a wide variety of proteins. These proteins include enzymes functioning as proteinases and chitinases which help defend the producing plant against insects and other herbivores. In one study it was found that the presence and concentration of some proteins can differ greatly within the genus Croton relative to three species studied.

Mesopredator release hypothesis

The mesopredator release hypothesis is an ecological theory used to describe the interrelated population dynamics between apex predators and mesopredators within an ecosystem, such that a collapsing population of the former results in dramatically-increased populations of the latter. This hypothesis describes the phenomenon of trophic cascade in specific terrestrial communities.

A mesopredator is a medium-sized, middle trophic level predator, which both preys and is preyed upon. Examples are raccoons, skunks, snakes, cownose rays, and small sharks.


Phytoalexins are antimicrobial and often antioxidative substances synthesized de novo by plants that accumulate rapidly at areas of pathogen infection. They are broad spectrum inhibitors and are chemically diverse with different types characteristic of particular plant species. Phytoalexins tend to fall into several classes including terpenoids, glycosteroids and alkaloids; however, researchers often find it convenient to extend the definition to include all phytochemicals that are part of the plant's defensive arsenal.


Phytoecdysteroids are plant-derived ecdysteroids. Phytoecdysteroids are a class of chemicals that plants synthesize for defense against phytophagous (plant eating) insects. These compounds are mimics of hormones used by arthropods in the molting process known as ecdysis. When insects eat the plants with these chemicals they may prematurely molt, lose weight, or suffer other metabolic damage and die.

Chemically, phytoecdysteroids are classed as triterpenoids, the group of compounds that includes triterpene saponins, phytosterols, and phytoecdysteroids. Plants, but not animals, synthesize phytoecdysteroids from mevalonic acid in the mevalonate pathway of the plant cell using acetyl-CoA as a precursor.

Over 250 ecdysteroid analogs have been identified so far in plants, and it has been theorized that there are over 1,000 possible structures which might occur in nature. Many more plants have the ability to "turn on" the production of phytoecdysteroids when under stress, animal attack or other conditions.The term phytoecdysteroid can also apply to ecdysteroids found in fungi, even though fungi are not plants.

Some plants or fungi that produce phytoecdysteroids include Achyranthes bidentata, Tinospora cordifolia, Pfaffia paniculata, Leuzea carthamoides, Rhaponticum uniflorum, Serratula coronata, Cordyceps, and Asparagus.

Plant defense

Plant defense may refer to:

Plant defense against herbivory

Inducible plant defenses against herbivory

Plant tolerance to herbivory

Plant use of endophytic fungi in defense

Plant disease resistance

Disease resistance in fruit and vegetables

Secondary metabolite

Hypersensitive response

Productivity (ecology)

In ecology, productivity refers to the rate of generation of biomass in an ecosystem. It is usually expressed in units of mass per unit surface (or volume) per unit time, for instance grams per square metre per day (g m−2 d−1). The mass unit may relate to dry matter or to the mass of carbon generated. Productivity of autotrophs such as plants is called primary productivity, while that of heterotrophs such as animals is called secondary productivity.


Raphides are needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate as the monohydrate or calcium carbonate as aragonite, found in more than 200 families of plants.

Both ends are needle-like, but raphides tend to be blunt at one end and sharp at the other.

Secondary metabolite

Secondary metabolites are organic compounds produced by bacteria, fungi, or plants which are not directly involved in the normal growth, development, or reproduction of the organism. Unlike primary metabolites, absence of secondary metabolites does not result in immediate death, but rather in long-term impairment of the organism's survivability, fecundity, or aesthetics, or perhaps in no significant change at all. Specific secondary metabolites are often restricted to a narrow set of species within a phylogenetic group. Secondary metabolites often play an important role in plant defense against herbivory and other interspecies defenses. Humans use secondary metabolites as medicines, flavorings, pigments, and recreational drugs.Secondary metabolites aid a host in important functions such as protection, competition, and species interactions, but are not necessary for survival. One important defining quality of secondary metabolites is their specificity. Usually, secondary metabolites are specific to an individual species, though there is considerable evidence that horizontal transfer across species or genera of entire pathways plays an important role in bacterial (and, likely, fungal) evolution. Research also shows that secondary metabolic can affect different species in varying ways. In the same forest, four separate species of arboreal marsupial folivores reacted differently to a secondary metabolite in eucalypts. This shows that differing types of secondary metabolites can be the split between two herbivore ecological niches. Additionally, certain species evolve to resist secondary metabolites and even use them for their own benefit. For example, monarch butterflies have evolved to be able to eat milkweed (Asclepias) despite the toxic secondary metabolite it contains. This ability additionally allows the butterfly and caterpillar to be toxic to other predators due to the high concentration of secondary metabolites consumed.


Toxalbumins are toxic plant proteins that disable ribosomes and thereby inhibit protein synthesis, producing severe cytotoxic effects in multiple organ systems. They are dimers held together by a disulfide bond and comprise a lectin (carbohydrate-binding protein) part which binds to the cell membrane and enables the toxin part to gain access to the cell contents. Toxalbumins are similar in structure to the toxins found in cholera, tetanus, diphtheria and botulinum; and their physiological and toxic properties are similar to those of viperine snake venom.Toxalbumins were first described in about 1890 by Ludwig Brieger (1849–1919) and Sigmund Fraenkel (1868–1939), associates of the organic chemist Eugen Baumann. Brieger first used the term toxin.Toxalbumins notably are present in the plant families Leguminosae and Euphorbiaceae, occurring for instance in Robinia pseudoacacia, Abrus precatorius, Jatropha curcas, Croton gratissimus and Ricinus communis. Typical toxalbumins are abrin and ricin. Ingestion of seed containing toxalbumins is not necessarily fatal as the hard seed coat will withstand digestion, unless the seed has been pierced, as would happen in the making of necklaces, prayer beads or bracelets, and even then the toxalbumin is likely to be digested and thereby rendered harmless. Toxalbumins injected intravenously or subcutaneously or inhaled in powdered form, though, are highly toxic. A latent period of hours to days may follow with no sensible signs of distress, after which symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea will appear, followed by delirium, seizures, coma, and death. From an evolutionary viewpoint, toxalbumins developed as a deterrent to consumption of seeds, foliage, bark and roots. Ripe fruits having a fleshy pulp are usually tasty and edible and lacking toxalbumins, encourage ingestion and the consequent distribution of seeds that have a coat sufficiently durable to survive a passage through the digestive system of a herbivore or fructivore.Being soluble in water, ricin is not present in extracted oils. As with most proteins it breaks down after heat treatment, such as cooking or steaming, and after the oil is extracted, the resulting pomace is often used as animal feed. There is an enormous variation in sensitivity to the toxin, and a lethal dose may be as little as two-millionths of body weight. Since ricin is a protein, antibodies may be produced by inoculation, allowing resistance of up to 800 times a normal lethal dose. Ricin has been used in assassinations, a notorious case being the use of a 1.53 mm pellet holding a few hundred millionths of a gram of ricin to kill the Bulgarian broadcaster, Georgi Markov, who died 4 days after being attacked.

Tritrophic interactions in plant defense

Tritrophic interactions as they relate to plant defense against herbivory describe the ecological impacts of three trophic levels on each other: the plant, the herbivore, and its natural enemies, predators of the herbivore. They may also be called multitrophic interactions when further trophic levels, such as soil microbes, or hyperparasitoids (higher-order predators), are considered. Tritrophic interactions join pollination and seed dispersal as vital biological functions which plants perform via cooperation with animals.Predators, pathogens, and parasitoids that attack plant-feeding insects, called natural enemies in a tritrophic context, can benefit plants by removing or hindering the feeding behavior of the harmful insect. It is thought that many plant traits have evolved in response to this mutualism to make themselves more attractive to natural enemies, and so the enlisting of natural enemies to protect against excessive herbivory is considered an indirect plant defense mechanism. Traits attractive to natural enemies can be physical, in the case of flower structure and color patterns, or chemical, in the case of induced plant volatile chemicals used by natural enemies to pinpoint a food source.

Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components


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