Empoasca leafhoppers attack wild tobacco plants in a jasmonate-dependent manner and identify jasmonate mutants in natural populations
Choice of host plants by phytophagous insects is essential for their survival and reproduction. This choice involves complex behavioral responses to a variety of physical and chemical characteristics of potential plants for feeding. For insects of the order Hemiptera, these behavioral responses involve a series of steps including labial dabbing and probing using their piercing mouthparts. These initial probing and feeding attempts also elicit a rapid accumulation of phytohormones, such as jasmonic acid (JA), and the induced defense metabolites they mediate. When Nicotiana attenuata plants are rendered JA deficient by silencing the initial committed step of the JA biosynthesis pathway, they are severely attacked in nature by hemipteran leafhoppers of the genus Empoasca. By producing N. attenuata plants silenced in multiple steps of JA biosynthesis and perception and in the biosynthesis of the plant's three major classes of JA-inducible insecticidal defenses, we demonstrate that the choice of plants for feeding by Empoasca leafhoppers in both nature and the glasshouse is independent of the accumulation of major insecticidal molecules. Moreover, this choice is independent of the presence of Candidatus Phytoplasma spp. and is not associated with detectable changes in plant volatiles but instead depends on the plant́s capacity to mediate JA signaling. We exploited this trait and used Empoasca leafhoppers to reveal genetic variation in JA accumulation and signaling hidden in N. attenuata natural populations.