, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 873-896

Postgenomic Chemical Ecology: From Genetic Code to Ecological Interactions

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Abstract

Environmental response genes are defined as those encoding proteins involved in interactions external to the organism, including interactions among organisms and between the organism and its abiotic environment. The general characteristics of environmental response genes include high diversity, proliferation by duplication events, rapid rates of evolution, and tissue-or temporal-specific expression. Thus, environmental response genes include those that encode proteins involved in the manufacture, binding, transport, and breakdown of semiochemicals. Postgenomic elucidation of the function of such genes requires an understanding of the chemical ecology of the organism and, in particular, of the “small molecules” that act as selective agents either by promoting survival or causing selective mortality. In this overview, the significance of several groups of environmental response genes is examined in the context of chemical ecology. Cytochrome P-450 monooxygenases provide a case in point; these enzymes are involved in the biosynthesis of furanocoumarins (furocoumarins), toxic allelochemicals, in plants, as well as in their detoxification by lepidopterans. Biochemical innovations in insects and plants have historically been broadly defined in a coevolutionary context. Considerable insight can be gained by defining with greater precision components of those broad traits that contribute to diversification. Molecular approaches now allow chemical ecologists to characterize specifically those biochemical innovations postulated to lead to adaptation and diversification in plant/insect interactions.