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Open Access Research article

Key biosynthetic gene subfamily recruited for pheromone production prior to the extensive radiation of Lepidoptera

Marjorie A Liénard1*, Maria Strandh1, Erik Hedenström3, Tomas Johansson2 and Christer Löfstedt1

Author Affiliations

1 Chemical Ecology and Ecotoxicology, Department of Ecology, Lund University, Ecology Building, SE-22362, Lund, Sweden

2 Microbial Ecology, Department of Ecology, Lund University, Ecology Building, SE-22362, Lund, Sweden

3 Department of Natural Sciences, Institute of Natural Sciences, SE-85170, Sundsvall, Sweden

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:270  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-270

Published: 2 October 2008



Moths have evolved highly successful mating systems, relying on species-specific mixtures of sex pheromone components for long-distance mate communication. Acyl-CoA desaturases are key enzymes in the biosynthesis of these compounds and to a large extent they account for the great diversity of pheromone structures in Lepidoptera. A novel desaturase gene subfamily that displays Δ11 catalytic activities has been highlighted to account for most of the unique pheromone signatures of the taxonomically advanced ditrysian species. To assess the mechanisms driving pheromone evolution, information is needed about the signalling machinery of primitive moths. The currant shoot borer, Lampronia capitella, is the sole reported primitive non-ditrysian moth known to use unsaturated fatty-acid derivatives as sex-pheromone. By combining biochemical and molecular approaches we elucidated the biosynthesis paths of its main pheromone component, the (Z,Z)-9,11-tetradecadien-1-ol and bring new insights into the time point of the recruitment of the key Δ11-desaturase gene subfamily in moth pheromone biosynthesis.


The reconstructed evolutionary tree of desaturases evidenced two ditrysian-specific lineages (the Δ11 and Δ9 (18C>16C)) to have orthologs in the primitive moth L. capitella despite being absent in Diptera and other insect genomes. Four acyl-CoA desaturase cDNAs were isolated from the pheromone gland, three of which are related to Δ9-desaturases whereas the fourth cDNA clusters with Δ11-desaturases. We demonstrated that this transcript (Lca-KPVQ) exclusively accounts for both steps of desaturation involved in pheromone biosynthesis. This enzyme possesses a Z11-desaturase activity that allows transforming the palmitate precursor (C16:0) into (Z)-11-hexadecenoic acid and the (Z)-9-tetradecenoic acid into the conjugated intermediate (Z,Z)-9,11-tetradecadienoic acid.


The involvement of a single Z11-desaturase in pheromone biosynthesis of a non-ditrysian moth species, supports that the duplication event leading to the origin of the Lepidoptera-specific Δ11-desaturase gene subfamily took place before radiation of ditrysian moths and their divergence from other heteroneuran lineages. Our findings uncover that this novel class of enzymes affords complex combinations of unique unsaturated fatty acyl-moieties of variable chain-lengths, regio- and stereo-specificities since early in moth history and contributes a notable innovation in the early evolution of moth-pheromones.