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What Goes in Must Come Out? The Metabolic Profile of Plants and Caterpillars, Frass, And Adults of Asota (Erebidae: Aganainae) Feeding on Ficus (Moraceae) in New Guinea


Insect herbivores have evolved a broad spectrum of adaptations in response to the diversity of chemical defences employed by plants. Here we focus on two species of New Guinean Asota and determine how these specialist moths deal with the leaf alkaloids of their fig (Ficus) hosts. As each focal Asota species is restricted to one of three chemically distinct species of Ficus, we also test whether these specialized interactions lead to similar alkaloid profiles in both Asota species. We reared Asota caterpillars on their respective Ficus hosts in natural conditions and analyzed the alkaloid profiles of leaf, frass, caterpillar, and adult moth samples using UHPLC–MS/MS analyses. We identified 43 alkaloids in our samples. Leaf alkaloids showed various fates. Some were excreted in frass or found in caterpillars and adult moths. We also found two apparently novel indole alkaloids—likely synthesized de novo by the moths or their microbiota—in both caterpillar and adult tissue but not in leaves or frass. Overall, alkaloids unique or largely restricted to insect tissue were shared across moth species despite feeding on different hosts. This indicates that a limited number of plant compounds have a direct ecological function that is conserved among the studied species. Our results provide evidence for the importance of phytochemistry and metabolic strategies in the formation of plant–insect interactions and food webs in general. Furthermore, we provide a new potential example of insects acquiring chemicals for their benefit in an ecologically relevant insect genus.

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Data will be made available from the Dryad Digital Repository on publication of the manuscript.


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We thank the assistants, taxonomists, and the staff of the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Papua New Guinea. We also thank the Papua New Guinea Forest Research Institute and the Department of Environment and Conservation for their help in getting plant and insect export permits, and the lab members of the Natural Chemistry Research Group at the University of Turku, Finland for their assistance with chemical analyses. We dedicate this manuscript to our late colleagues Stewart Wossa, Simon Leather, and Freddy Pius.


A.M.F., V.N., M.V. and S.T.S. acknowledge the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic (grant number 19-28126X). V.N. acknowledges support from the European Research Council grant no. 669609. S.T.S. acknowledges departmental support from Harper Adams University. J-P.S. acknowledges funding from the Academy of Finland. This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under grants DEB 9707928, 0211591 and 0515678, 0816749 and 0841885. DNA barcoding was provided by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, University of Guelph, with funding from Genome Canada and the Ontario Genomics Institute to the International Barcode of Life Project.

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J-P.S., V.N., M.V. and S.T.S, conceived the ideas and designed the methodology; G.A., M.S., I.K. and J-P.S. collected the data; S.T.S. analysed the data; A.M.F. and S.T.S. prepared the figures; A.M.F., G.A., S.M., J.H., M.V. and S.T.S. led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Simon T. Segar.

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The authors have no conflict of interest to disclose.

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Alyssa M. Fontanilla and Gibson Aubona are Joint first authors.

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Fontanilla, A.M., Aubona, G., Sisol, M. et al. What Goes in Must Come Out? The Metabolic Profile of Plants and Caterpillars, Frass, And Adults of Asota (Erebidae: Aganainae) Feeding on Ficus (Moraceae) in New Guinea. J Chem Ecol (2022).

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  • Alkaloids
  • Plantinsect interactions
  • Food-webs
  • Biodiversity
  • Host-specificity
  • Herbivores