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Oecologia. 2006 Jun;148(2):280-92. Epub 2006 Feb 7.

Priming of plant defense responses in nature by airborne signaling between Artemisia tridentata and Nicotiana attenuata.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, 445 Corson Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853 , USA.


Plants release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in response to wounding and herbivore attack, some of which trigger responses in neighboring unattacked plants in the laboratory under conditions that are not likely to occur in the real world. Whether plants 'eavesdrop' on the volatile emissions of their neighbors in nature is not known. The best documented field study of between-species signaling via above-ground VOCs involves increases in fitness parameters of native tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) transplanted adjacent to clipped sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata tridentata). Clipped sagebrush releases many biologically active VOCs, including methyl jasmonate (MeJA), methacrolein and a series of terpenoid and green leaf VOCs, of which MeJA, while active under laboratory conditions, is not released in sufficient quantities to directly elicit induced resistance in the field. Here we demonstrate, with laboratory and field-based experiments, that priming (rather than direct elicitation) of native N. attenuata's induced chemical defenses by a sagebrush-released VOC bouquet can account for earlier findings. With microarrays enriched in N. attenuata herbivore-regulated genes, we found transcriptional responses in tobacco growing adjacent to clipped sagebrush foliage, but failed to detect the direct elicitation of defensive chemicals or proteins. However, we observed an accelerated production of trypsin proteinase inhibitors when Manduca sexta caterpillars fed on plants previously exposed to clipped sagebrush. This readying of a defense response, termed priming, results in lower total herbivore damage to plants exposed to clipped sagebrush and in a higher mortality rate of young Manduca caterpillars. Our study demonstrates priming of plant defense responses as a mechanism of plant-plant signaling in nature, and provides an example for the analysis of between-plant signaling under ecologically realistic conditions. Although we describe priming as a potential mechanism for signaling between plants in nature, we critically discuss the ecological relevance of the particular interaction.

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