A Host-Plant Specialist, Helicoverpa Assulta, Is More Tolerant to Capsaicin From Capsicum Annuum Than Other Noctuid Species

J Insect Physiol. 2011 Sep;57(9):1212-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jinsphys.2011.05.015. Epub 2011 Jun 15.


Plant secondary compounds not only play an important role in plant defense, but have been a driving force for host adaptation by herbivores. Capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide), an alkaloid found in the fruit of Capsicum spp. (Solanaceae), is responsible for the pungency of hot pepper fruits and is unique to the genus. The oriental tobacco budworm, Helicoverpa assulta (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), is a specialist herbivore feeding on solanaceous plants including Capsicum annuum, and is one of a very few insect herbivores worldwide capable of feeding on hot pepper fruits. To determine whether this is due in part to an increased physiological tolerance of capsaicin, we compared H. assulta with another specialist on Solanaceae, Heliothis subflexa, and four generalist species, Spodoptera frugiperda, Heliothis virescens, Helicoverpa armigera, and Helicoverpa zea, all belonging to the family Noctuidae. When larvae were fed capsaicin-spiked artificial diet for the entire larval period, larval mortality increased in H. subflexa and H. zea but decreased in H. assulta. Larval growth decreased on the capsaicin-spiked diet in four of the species, was unaffected in H. armigera and increased in H. assulta. Food consumption and utilization experiments showed that capsaicin decreased relative consumption rate (RCR), relative growth rate (RGR) and approximate digestibility (AD) in H. zea, and increased AD and the efficiency of conversion of ingested food (ECI) in H. armigera; whereas it did not significantly change any of these nutritional indices in H. assulta. The acute toxicity of capsaicin measured by injection into early fifth instar larvae was less in H. assulta than in H. armigera and H. zea. Injection of high concentrations produced abdominal paralysis and self-cannibalism. Injection of sub-lethal doses of capsaicin resulted in reduced pupal weights in H. armigera and H. zea, but not in H. assulta. The results indicate that H. assulta is more tolerant to capsaicin than the other insects tested, suggesting that this has facilitated expansion of its host range within Solanaceae to Capsicum after introduction of the latter to the Old World about 500 years ago. The increased larval survival and growth due to chronic dietary exposure to capsaicin suggests further adaptation of H. assulta to that compound, the mechanisms of which remain to be investigated.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Capsaicin / toxicity*
  • Capsicum / parasitology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions*
  • Larva / drug effects
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Moths / drug effects*
  • Moths / growth & development
  • Toxicity Tests, Acute
  • Toxicity Tests, Chronic


  • Capsaicin