The phloem sap of fava bean (Vicia faba) plants utilized by the pea aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum contains three sterols, cholesterol, stigmasterol and sitosterol, in a 2:2:1 ratio. To investigate the nutritional value of these sterols, pea aphids were reared on chemically-defined diets containing each sterol at 0.1, 1 and 10μgml(-1) with a sterol-free diet as control. Larval growth rate and aphid lifespan did not vary significantly across the diets, indicating that sterol reserves can buffer some performance indices against a shortfall in dietary sterol over at least one generation. However, lifetime reproductive output was depressed in aphids on diets containing stigmasterol or no sterol, relative to diets supplemented with cholesterol or sitosterol. The cholesterol density of embryos in teneral adults was significantly higher than in the total body; and the number and biomass of embryos in aphids on diets with stigmasterol and no sterols were reduced relative to diets with cholesterol or sitosterol, indicating that the reproductive output of the pea aphid can be limited by the amount and composition of dietary sterol. In a complementary RNA-seq analysis of pea aphids reared on plants and diets with different sterol contents, 7.6% of the 17,417 detected gene transcripts were differentially expressed. Transcript abundance of genes with annotated function in sterol utilization did not vary significantly among treatments, suggesting that the metabolic response to dietary sterol may be mediated primarily at the level of enzyme function or metabolite concentration.
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