Acute toxicity of the plant volatile indole depends on herbivore specialization

Abhinav K. Maurya, Rakhi C. Patel, Christopher J. Frost

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs) provide direct benefits to plants as antimicrobials and herbivore repellents, but their potential as direct toxins to herbivores is unclear. Here, we assayed the larvicidal activity of six common HIPVs from three different biochemical pathways and tested the hypothesis that the larvicidal activity of HIPVs is related to the host specialization of the insect pest. We first assessed β-caryophyllene, linalool, z-3-hexenyl acetate, z-3-hexenol, e-2-hexenal, and indole against the beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua) and found that indole was sevenfold more toxic compared to the other volatiles when incorporated into the diet. Then, we tested the larvicidal activity of indole against six common, destructive pest caterpillars with varying host ranges. Consistent with our hypothesis, indole toxicity varied with caterpillar host range: indole toxicity was sevenfold higher in more specialized insect species relative to generalist insect species. That said, the LC50 of indole was comparable to other reported anti-herbivore agents even against the generalist caterpillars. Yet, indole in headspace had neither larvicidal nor ovicidal activity on any caterpillar species tested. These results support a key ecological precept of a trade-off between host specialization and chemical detoxification and also indicate that indole in particular is directly toxic to herbivores and therefore potentially useful in integrated pest management strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1107-1117
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Pest Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Caterpillars
  • Green leaf volatiles (GLVs)
  • Herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs)
  • Host range
  • Indole
  • Pest
  • Specialist versus generalist herbivore
  • Toxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science


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