Open Access Research article

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of field populations of Helicoverpa armigera (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) and of its relationship to H. zea

Gajanan T Behere1, Wee Tek Tay1*, Derek A Russell12, David G Heckel3, Belinda R Appleton4, Keshav R Kranthi5 and Philip Batterham1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Environmental Stress and Adaptation Research, Department of Genetics, Bio21 Institute of Molecular Science and Biotechnology, The University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010, Australia

2 Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, Chatham Maritime, Kent, Me4 4TB, UK

3 Department of Entomology, Max-Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Beutenberg Campus, Hans-Knöll-Straße 8, Jena D-07745, Germany

4 Department of Genetics, The University of Melbourne, Parkville 3010, Australia

5 Central Institute for Cotton Research, Post Bag No 2, Shankar Nagar P.O., Nagpur 440010, India

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:117  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-117

Published: 14 July 2007



Helicoverpa armigera and H. zea are amongst the most significant polyphagous pest lepidopteran species in the Old and New Worlds respectively. Separation of H. armigera and H. zea is difficult and is usually only achieved through morphological differences in the genitalia. They are capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. The single species status of H. armigera has been doubted, due to its wide distribution and plant host range across the Old World. This study explores the global genetic diversity of H. armigera and its evolutionary relationship to H zea.


We obtained partial (511 bp) mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) Cytochrome Oxidase-I (COI) sequences for 249 individuals of H. armigera sampled from Australia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, China, India and Pakistan which were associated with various host plants. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within the partial COI gene differentiated H. armigera populations into 33 mtDNA haplotypes. Shared haplotypes between continents, low F-statistic values and low nucleotide diversity between countries (0.0017 – 0.0038) suggests high mobility in this pest. Phylogenetic analysis of four major Helicoverpa pest species indicates that H. punctigera is basal to H. assulta, which is in turn basal to H. armigera and H. zea. Samples from North and South America suggest that H. zea is also a single species across its distribution. Our data reveal short genetic distances between H. armigera and H. zea which seem to have been established via a founder event from H. armigera stock at around 1.5 million years ago.


Our mitochondrial DNA sequence data supports the single species status of H. armigera across Africa, Asia and Australia. The evidence for inter-continental gene flow observed in this study is consistent with published evidence of the capacity of this species to migrate over long distances. The finding of high genetic similarity between Old World H. armigera and New World H. zea emphasises the need to consider work on both pests when building pest management strategies for either.