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Bacterial feeding induces changes in immune-related gene expression and has trans-generational impacts in the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni)

Dalial Freitak*, David G Heckel and Heiko Vogel

Author Affiliations

Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Department of Entomology, Hans Knöll Strasse 8, 07745 Jena, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2009, 6:7  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-6-7

Published: 7 May 2009



Poly- and oligophagous insects are able to feed on various host plants with a wide range of defense strategies. However, diverse food plants are also inhabited by microbiota differing in quality and quantity, posing a potential challenge for immune system mediated homeostasis in the herbivore. Recent studies highlight the complex interactions between environmentally encountered microorganisms and herbivorous insects, pointing to a potential adaptational alteration of the insects' physiology. We performed a differential gene expression analysis in whole larvae and eggs laid by parents grown on different diets to identify potential novel genes related to elevated microbial content in the caterpillars' food.


We used GeneFishing, a novel differential display method, to study the effects of dietary bacteria on the general gene expression in different life stages and tissues of the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni). We were able to visualize several hundred transcripts on agarose gels, one fifth of which were differentially expressed between treatments. The largest number of differentially expressed genes was found in defense-related processes (13) and in recognition and metabolism (16). 21 genes were picked out and further tested for differential gene expression by an independent method (qRT-PCR) in various tissues of larvae grown on bacterial and bacteria-free diet, and also in adults. We detected a number of genes indicative of an altered physiological status of the insect, depending on the diet, developmental stage and tissue.


Changes in immune status are accompanied by specific changes in the transcript levels of genes connected to metabolism and homeostasis of the organism. Our findings show that larval feeding on bacteria-rich diet leads to substantial gene expression changes, potentially resulting in a reorganization of the insects' metabolism to maintain organismal homeostasis, not only in the larval but also in the adult stage. Furthermore, differences in gene expression levels can also be seen in the next generation, strongly influenced by parental diet.