Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 42, Issue 11, pp 1151–1163 | Cite as

Spatio-Temporal, Genotypic, and Environmental Effects on Plant Soluble Protein and Digestible Carbohydrate Content: Implications for Insect Herbivores with Cotton as an Exemplar

  • Carrie A. Deans
  • Spencer T. Behmer
  • Justin Fiene
  • Gregory A. Sword


Plant soluble protein and digestible carbohydrate content significantly affect insect herbivore fitness, but studies reporting plant protein and carbohydrate content are rare. Instead, the elements nitrogen and carbon often are used as surrogates for plant protein and digestible carbohydrate content, respectively. However, this is problematic for two reasons. First, carbon is found in all organic molecules, which precludes strong correlations with ecologically important dietary macronutrients (e.g., digestible carbohydrates, the primary energy source for most insect herbivores). Second, some elements (e.g., nitrogen) are present in both macronutrients (e.g., protein) and non-nutritive secondary compounds (e.g., alkaloids, protease inhibitors); in these cases N values would greatly overestimate protein available for an insect herbivore. Thus, the objective of this study was to explicitly document plant protein-carbohydrate content and assess its variation in cotton (Gossypium hirsutum and G. barbadense), which is a nutritional resource for a number of insect herbivores. We did this by measuring plant soluble protein (P) and digestible carbohydrate (C) content across seven plant tissues, five varieties, and two growing environments. Significant differences in P and C concentration, total macronutrient content (P + C), and P:C ratio were observed across plant tissues, plant age and environment; smaller differences were seen across plant genotype. Foliar tissues had higher total P + C content compared to reproductive tissues, except for developing seeds and developing flowers, which contained twice the total P + C content; these two tissues also had the highest P content. Our data show that even agricultural monocultures offer a highly heterogeneous protein-carbohydrate landscape for insect herbivores. Characterizing plant resources using nutritional currencies (e.g., protein and carbohydrates) that are ecologically and physiologically-relevant to insect herbivores can be used to enhance our understanding of plant-insect interactions.


Cotton Gossypium barbadense Gossypium hirsutum Herbivory Nutrition Macronutrients Plant-insect interactions 



We thank all who have contributed to this project, either through assistance with field collection, chemical analyses, or general feedback, including: Paul Lenhart, Marion Le Gall, Rebecca Clark, Fiona Clissold, Mickey Eubanks, Cesar Valencia, Lauren Kalns, Diana Castillo-Lopez, Maria Julissa Ek-Ramos, Nicole Locke, and Steve Hague. Charlie Cook from All-Tex Seed Inc. provided seed for use in these experiments. Aspects of this study were supported by the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants (BRAG) program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015-33522-24099) awarded to GAS and STB, as well as the C. Everette Salyer Fellowship in Cotton Entomology and the Dissertation Fellowship offered by Texas A&M University and awarded to CAD.

Supplementary material

10886_2016_772_MOESM1_ESM.docx (13 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 13 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carrie A. Deans
    • 1
    • 2
  • Spencer T. Behmer
    • 1
    • 3
  • Justin Fiene
    • 4
  • Gregory A. Sword
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of EntomologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  2. 2.Department of EntomologyUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  3. 3.Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Graduate ProgramTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  4. 4.Department of Environmental and Forest BiologySUNY-ESFSyracuseUSA

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