Microbial brokers of insect-plant interactions revisited

J Chem Ecol. 2013 Jul;39(7):952-61. doi: 10.1007/s10886-013-0308-x. Epub 2013 Jun 21.


Recent advances in sequencing methods have transformed the field of microbial ecology, making it possible to determine the composition and functional capabilities of uncultured microorganisms. These technologies have been instrumental in the recognition that resident microorganisms can have profound effects on the phenotype and fitness of their animal hosts by modulating the animal signaling networks that regulate growth, development, behavior, etc. Against this backdrop, this review assesses the impact of microorganisms on insect-plant interactions, in the context of the hypothesis that microorganisms are biochemical brokers of plant utilization by insects. There is now overwhelming evidence for a microbial role in insect utilization of certain plant diets with an extremely low or unbalanced nutrient content. Specifically, microorganisms enable insect utilization of plant sap by synthesizing essential amino acids. They also can broker insect utilization of plant products of extremely high lignocellulose content, by enzymatic breakdown of complex plant polysaccharides, nitrogen fixation, and sterol synthesis. However, the experimental evidence for microbial-mediated detoxification of plant allelochemicals is limited. The significance of microorganisms as brokers of plant utilization by insects is predicted to vary, possibly widely, as a result of potentially complex interactions between the composition of the microbiota and the diet and insect developmental age or genotype. For every insect species feeding on plant material, the role of resident microbiota as biochemical brokers of plant utilization is a testable hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biotransformation
  • Herbivory*
  • Insecta / microbiology*
  • Microbiota*
  • Pheromones / metabolism


  • Pheromones