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Transcriptional responses underlying the hormetic and detrimental effects of the plant secondary metabolite gossypol on the generalist herbivore Helicoverpa armigera

Maria de la Paz Celorio-Mancera12, Seung-Joon Ahn13, Heiko Vogel1 and David G Heckel1*

Author Affiliations

1 Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Department of Entomology, Beutenberg Campus, Hans-Knöll-Straβe 8, 07745, Jena, Germany

2 Department of Zoology Ecology, Stockholm University, Svante Arrheniusväg 18 B, 106 91, Stockholm, Sweden

3 Horticultural and Herbal Crop Environment Division, National Institute of Horticultural and Herbal Science, Rural Development Administration, Suwon, 441-440, Korea

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:575  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-575

Published: 23 November 2011



Hormesis is a biphasic biological response characterized by the stimulatory effect at relatively low amounts of chemical compounds which are otherwise detrimental at higher concentrations. A hormetic response in larval growth rates has been observed in cotton-feeding insects in response to increasing concentrations of gossypol, a toxic metabolite found in the pigment glands of some plants in the family Malvaceae. We investigated the developmental effect of gossypol in the cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, an important heliothine pest species, by exposing larvae to different doses of this metabolite in their diet. In addition, we sought to determine the underlying transcriptional responses to different gossypol doses.


Larval weight gain, pupal weight and larval development time were measured in feeding experiments and a hormetic response was seen for the first two characters. On the basis of net larval weight gain responses to gossypol, three concentrations (0%, 0.016% and 0.16%) were selected for transcript profiling in the gut and the rest of the body in a two-color double reference design microarray experiment. Hormesis could be observed at the transcript level, since at the low gossypol dose, genes involved in energy acquisition such as β-fructofuranosidases were up-regulated in the gut, and genes involved in cell adhesion were down-regulated in the body. Genes with products predicted to be integral to the membrane or associated with the proteasome core complex were significantly affected by the detrimental dose treatment in the body. Oxidoreductase activity-related genes were observed to be significantly altered in both tissues at the highest gossypol dose.


This study represents the first transcriptional profiling approach investigating the effects of different concentrations of gossypol in a lepidopteran species. H. armigera's transcriptional response to gossypol feeding is tissue- and dose-dependent and involves diverse detoxifying mechanisms not only to alleviate direct effects of gossypol but also indirect damage such as pH disturbance and oxygen radical formation. Genes discovered through this transcriptional approach may be additional candidates for understanding gossypol detoxification and coping with gossypol-induced stress. In a generalist herbivore that has evolved transcriptionally-regulated responses to a variety of different plant compounds, hormesis may be due to a lower induction threshold of growth-promoting, stress-coping responses and a higher induction threshold of detoxification pathways that are costly and cause collateral damage to the cell.