Picky eating, not genetics, splits leaf beetles

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgMany different factors can conspire to create reproductive isolation between populations and, ultimately, separate species. Disentangling them is often tricky, but a study recently published in PNAS takes a crack, and demonstrates that two populations of leaf beetles are divided by food preferences, not genetics [$-a]

Neochlamisus larva, and two possible food plants, red maple and willow. Photos by Scott Justis/BugGuide.net, Mary Keim, and John Tann.

Some populations of the leaf beetle Neochlamisus bebbianae eat red maple, and others eat willow; each type grows better on their native host plant. Hybrids between the two species are possible, and they don’t grow as rapidly when raised on either host. This might mean that ecology — adaptation to the different host plants — is creating reproductive isolation between the two forms of Neochlamisus. But it might also mean that the two forms are genetically incompatible.

Many species are separated by intrinsic genetic incompatibility. In these cases, hybrids have reduced fitness, or die outright, because the two species have evolved separately in such a way that mixed genomes cannot produce important proteins correctly. One example was recently found in two lines of the wildflower Arabidopsis thaliana — both lines had duplicate copies of an important gene, and in each line a different copy mutated into non-functionality, so some hybrids between the two lacked any functional copies [$-a].

To differentiate between this kind of genetic incompatibility and ecological isolation, coauthors Egan and Funk conducted not one but two generations of hybridization between maple and willow Neochlamisus populations. In the first (F1) generation, they bred parents from each host-specialized type; but in the second they performed a “backcross,” breeding the F1 hybrids with mates from one or the other of the parental populations.

This produced a population of backcrossed hybrids with 3/4 of their genes from one parental type, and 1/4 from the other. If intrinsic incompatibility separated the types, then these backcrossed hybrids would grow poorly no matter what their host plant. However, if adaptation to separate host plants isolates the types, then backcrossed hybrids would perform better on the host plant of the type with which they shared more genes. This is what Egan and Funk found — backcrossed hybrid larvae grew faster on maple if they shared more genes with maple-type Neochlamisus, and similarly for willow.


Bikard, D., Patel, D., Le Mette, C., Giorgi, V., Camilleri, C., Bennett, M., & Loudet, O. (2009). Divergent evolution of duplicate genes leads to genetic incompatibilities within A. thaliana Science, 323 (5914), 623-6 DOI: 10.1126/science.1165917

Egan, S., & Funk, D. (2009). Ecologically dependent postmating isolation between sympatric host forms of Neochlamisus bebbianae leaf beetles Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 106 (46), 19426-31 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909424106

2 thoughts on “Picky eating, not genetics, splits leaf beetles

  1. Specialization on different host plants is pretty common in insects — it’s just not commonly tested to this degree of precision.

    Also, in the interest of pedantry, I should point out that Egan and Funk haven’t demonstrated complete reproductive isolation, just selection against hybrids.

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