Trade-Offs between Silicon and Phenolic Defenses may Explain Enhanced Performance of Root Herbivores on Phenolic-Rich Plants


Phenolic compounds play a role in plant defense against herbivores. For some herbivorous insects, particularly root herbivores, host plants with high phenolic concentrations promote insect performance and tissue consumption. This positive relationship between some insects and phenolics, however, could reflect a negative correlation with other plant defenses acting against insects. Silicon is an important element for plant growth and defense, particularly in grasses, as many grass species take up large amounts of silicon. Negative impact of a high silicon diet on insect herbivore performance has been reported aboveground, but is unreported for belowground herbivores. It has been hypothesized that some silicon accumulating plants exhibit a trade-off between carbon-based defense compounds, such as phenolics, and silicon-based defenses. Here, we investigated the impact of silicon concentrations and total phenolic concentrations in sugarcane roots on the performance of the root-feeding greyback canegrub (Dermolepida albohirtum). Canegrub performance was positively correlated with root phenolics, but negatively correlated with root silicon. We found a negative relationship in the roots between total phenolics and silicon concentrations. This suggests the positive impact of phenolic compounds on some insects may be the effect of lower concentrations of silicon compounds in plant tissue. This is the first demonstration of plant silicon negatively affecting a belowground herbivore.

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We thank the teams at Sugar Research Australia and the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment for their support throughout this project, particularly Andrew Gherlenda, Allen Eaton, and Lisa Derby for their help and advice. Funding was provided by Sugar Research Australia (project no.2014/104) and the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University.

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Correspondence to Adam Frew.

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Frew, A., Powell, J.R., Sallam, N. et al. Trade-Offs between Silicon and Phenolic Defenses may Explain Enhanced Performance of Root Herbivores on Phenolic-Rich Plants. J Chem Ecol 42, 768–771 (2016).

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  • Carbon
  • Insect herbivory
  • Phenolics
  • Silicon
  • Sugarcane
  • Trade-off