Background: Maize (Zea mays L.) leaves damaged by lepidopteran herbivores emit a complex volatile blend that can attract natural enemies of the herbivores and may also have roles in direct defense and inter- or intra-plant signaling. The volatile blend is dominated by sesquiterpenes of which the majority is produced by two herbivore-induced terpene synthases, TPS10 and TPS23. However, little is known about the pattern of volatile emission within maize leaves.
Results: In this study, we restricted herbivore feeding to small sections of the maize leaf with the aim of determining the patterns of volatile sesquiterpene emission throughout the damaged leaf and in neighboring leaves. Sesquiterpene volatiles were released at high rates from damaged leaves, but at much lower rates from neighboring leaves. Release was restricted to the site of damage or to leaf sections located apical to the damage, but was not seen in sections basal to the damage or on the other side of the midrib. The emission pattern correlated well with the transcript pattern of the respective sesquiterpene synthase genes, tps10 and tps23, implying that biosynthesis likely occurs at the site of emission. The concentrations of jasmonic acid and its leucine derivative were also elevated in terpene-emitting tissues suggesting a role for jasmonates in propagating the damage signal.
Conclusions: In contrast to other defense reactions which often occur systemically throughout the whole plant, herbivore-induced sesquiterpene production in maize is restricted to the wounding site and distal leaf parts. Since the signal mediating this reaction is directed to the leaf tip and cannot propagate parallel to the leaf axis, it is likely connected to the xylem. The increasing gradient of volatiles from the tip of the leaf towards the damage site might aid herbivore enemies in host or prey finding.