The gut microbiome of phytopathogenic root fly larvae: insights into the detoxification of plant secondary metabolites by insect-associated microbes
Plants of the genus Brassica produce various toxic compounds such as isothiocyanates in response to herbivore damage. Despite their toxicity, some insects can cope well with these compounds. One example is the larva of the cabbage root fly (Delia radicum) which is a serious agricultural pest. The mechanism by which these root feeding insects detoxify isothiocyanates is not explored. Our hypothesis is that microorganisms residing in the gut contain enzymes that break down the isothiocyanates and are thus crucial for survival of the root fly larvae. We substantiated this hypothesis by metagenome studies of the microbial gut community. Combined with functional screens of isolated gut microbes these analyses indicated that indeed the gut microbiota plays a vital role in the breakdown of isothiocyanates. Some genes encoding proteins that are involved in this process have already been identified. Ongoing genome and transcriptome studies of isolated gut microbes will enable us to find new candidate genes encoding proteins used for isothiocyanate breakdown that will subsequently be functionally characterized. This will lead to an in-depth understanding of the role of microbes in the plant secondary metabolite – insect interaction.