Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 39, Issue 7, pp 840–859 | Cite as

Microbial Volatile Emissions as Insect Semiochemicals

  • Thomas Seth DavisEmail author
  • Tawni L. Crippen
  • Richard W. Hofstetter
  • Jeffery K. Tomberlin


We provide a synthesis of the literature describing biochemical interactions between microorganisms and insects by way of microbial volatile organic compound (MVOC) production. We evaluated the functionality and ecological context of MVOC signals, and explored important metabolic pathways involved in MVOC production. The cosmopolitan distribution of microorganisms creates a context for frequent, and frequently overlooked, insect responses to microbial emissions. There are numerous instances of MVOCs being closely associated with insect feeding behaviors, but some MVOCs are also powerful repellants. Emissions from microorganisms in situ may signal aspects of habitat suitability or potential exposure to entomopathogens. In some ecosystems, bacterial or fungal volatiles can also incite insect aggregations, or MVOCs can resemble sexual pheromones that elicit mating and oviposition behaviors from responding insects. A single microorganism or MVOC can have different effects on insect behaviors, especially across species, ontogenies, and habitats. There appears to be a multipartite basis for insect responses to MVOCs, and complex tritrophic interactions can result from the production of MVOCs. Many biochemical pathways for behaviorally active volatile production by microbial species are conserved across large taxonomic groupings of microorganisms. In addition, there is substantial functional redundancy in MVOCs: fungal tissues commonly produce polyketides and short-chain alcohols, whereas bacterial tissues tend to be more commonly associated with amines and pyrazines. We hypothesize that insect olfactory responses to emissions from microorganisms inhabiting their sensory environment are much more common than currently recognized, and that these signals represent evolutionarily reliable infochemicals. Insect chemoreception of microbial volatiles may contribute to the formation of neutral, beneficial, or even harmful symbioses and provide considerable insight into the evolution of insect behavioral responses to volatile compounds.


Attraction Microbes Yeast Fungi Bacteria Insect behavior Signaling Orientation Pheromones Volatile organic compounds Tritrophic interaction 



The authors are indebted to numerous sources. Financial support was provided to T.S.D. under the REACCH Project, with funds from U.S.D.A. NIFA Award #2011-68002-30191. Financial support for T.L.C and J.K.T were provided by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice through Grant 2010-DN-BX-K243. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Mention of trade names, companies, or commercial products in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement of the products by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Financial support for R.W.H was partially provided by U.S.D.A. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Station on U.S.D.A. Grant 08-JV-11221633-250. We are also grateful to Peter Witzgall for encouraging our contribution. Finally, we thank three anonymous referees for contributing their time and effort to review and improve this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas Seth Davis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tawni L. Crippen
    • 2
  • Richard W. Hofstetter
    • 3
  • Jeffery K. Tomberlin
    • 4
  1. 1.Plant, Soil, and Entomological SciencesUniversity of IdahoMoscowUSA
  2. 2.U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research ServiceSouthern Plains Agricultural Research CenterCollege StationUSA
  3. 3.College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural SciencesNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  4. 4.Department of EntomologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

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