Background: Phytophagous insects have emerged successfully on the planet also because of the development of diverse and often astonishing defensive strategies against their enemies. The larvae of the mustard leaf beetle Phaedon cochleariae, for example, secrete deterrents from specialized defensive glands on their back. The secretion process involves ATP-binding cassette transporters. Therefore, sugar as one of the major energy sources to fuel the ATP synthesis for the cellular metabolism and transport processes, has to be present in the defensive glands. However, the role of sugar transporters for the production of defensive secretions was not addressed until now.
Results: To identify sugar transporters in P. cochleariae, a transcript catalogue was created by Illumina sequencing of cDNA libraries. A total of 68,667 transcripts were identified and 68 proteins were annotated as either members of the solute carrier 2 (SLC2) family or trehalose transporters. Phylogenetic analyses revealed an extension of the mammalian GLUT6/8 class in insects as well as one group of transporters exhibiting distinctive conserved motifs only present in the insect order Coleoptera. RNA-seq data of samples derived from the defensive glands revealed six transcripts encoding sugar transporters with more than 3,000 counts. Two of them are exclusively expressed in the glandular tissue. Reduction in secretions production was accomplished by silencing two of four selected transporters. RNA-seq experiments of transporter-silenced larvae showed the down-regulation of the silenced transporter but concurrently the up-regulation of other SLC2 transporters suggesting an adaptive system to maintain sugar homeostasis in the defensive glands.
Conclusion: We provide the first comprehensive phylogenetic study of the SLC2 family in a phytophagous beetle species. RNAi and RNA-seq experiments underline the importance of SLC2 transporters in defensive glands to achieve a chemical defense for successful competitive interaction in natural ecosystems.