Symbiotic bacteria enable insect to use a nutritionally inadequate diet

Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Mar 7;276(1658):987-91. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1476.


Animals generally require a dietary supply of various nutrients (vitamins, essential amino acids, etc.) because their biosynthetic capabilities are limited. The capacity of aphids to use plant phloem sap, with low essential amino acid content, has been attributed to their symbiotic bacteria, Buchnera aphidicola, which can synthesize these nutrients; but this has not been demonstrated empirically. We demonstrate here that phloem sap obtained from the severed stylets of pea aphids Acyrthosiphon pisum feeding on Vicia faba plants generally provided inadequate amounts of at least one essential amino acid to support aphid growth. Complementary analyses using aphids reared on chemically defined diets with each amino acid individually omitted revealed that the capacity of the symbiotic bacterium B. aphidicola to synthesize essential amino acids exceeded the dietary deficit of all phloem amino acids except methionine. It is proposed that this shortfall of methionine was met by aphid usage of the non-protein amino acid 5-methylmethionine in the phloem sap. This study provides the first quantitative demonstration that bacterial symbiosis can meet the nutritional demand of plant-reared aphids. It shows how symbiosis with micro-organisms has enabled this group of animals to escape from the constraint of requiring a balanced dietary supply of amino acids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aphids / microbiology*
  • Buchnera / physiology*
  • Diet
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Larva
  • Symbiosis / physiology*
  • Vicia faba