Females are better speakers and better listeners than males – at least in plants

My age puts me smack dab in the middle of the woo-woo generation, when many people engaged in activities, or shared in belief systems, that were criticized as unscientific, spacey or just plain bizarre.  For example, talking to your plants was purported to make them bigger, greener or more florid.  This hypothesis generated a huge number of science fair projects, but no clear answers (so far as I know – but I admit that I have not done the appropriate research!).  But, it turns out that plants do talk to each other and to some animals.  When attacked by herbivores, many plant species will emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air that can have two effects.  First, these VOCs can alert nearby plants that herbivores are in the area, and that they should start producing defense compounds in their tissues that will repel these herbivores.  Second, these VOCs can alert predators that herbivores are present, and they should swing by and eat them.

Several studies have shown that female and male plants may differ in several ways that could affect communication.  Females typically invest more in reproduction, grow more slowly and invest more in defense against herbivory. Xoaquin Moreira and his colleagues wondered if sexual dimorphism in defense investment would result in differences between males and female in how they talk to each other. They chose the woody shrub Baccharis salicifolia, in which females grow more slowly but invest more in chemical defense and thus are infested by fewer herbivores than are males.  They focused their study on chemical responses of the plant to the highly-specialized aphid Uroleucon macolai, which only feeds on two Baccharis species.


Baccharis salicifolia hosting an army of herbivorous aphids. Credit: X. Moreira.

The researchers used greenhouse experiments to explore how Baccharis uses VOCs for communication.  To control aphid movement, each treatment was done in a mesh cage, with one centrally located VOC emitter plant (of either sex), and one female and one male receiver plant equally distant from the central plant. Control emitter plants were untreated, while herbivore-induced emitter plants were given 15 mature aphids, which fed and reproduced on the plants for 15 days.  After 15 days Moreira and his colleagues removed all of the emitter plants and all of the aphids, and then inoculated each receiver plant with two adult aphids.  The researchers measured aphid reproductive rate on the fifth day as their measure of aphid performance, or of plant resistance to aphids.


Emitter Baccharis salicifolia plant flanked by one male and one female receiver plant. Credit X. Moreira.

Aphids did much more poorly on male and female receiver plants that were associated with male herbivore-induced emitter plants (top graph below).  This implies that these receiver plants became resistant to aphids as a result of their exposure to an airborne substance released by the male emitter plant.  When the researchers used female emitter plants they found something very different.  There was no effect on male receivers, but still a very strong effect on female receivers, which had a much lower aphid reproductive rate than the female plants exposed to untreated female emitter plants (bottom graph below).


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on control receiver plants (emitter plant with no aphids – clear bars) and herbivore-induced emitter plants (gray bars).  Two left bars show performance on male receiver plants, while two right bars show performance on female receiver plants. Top graph shows data for male emitters and bottom graph shows data for female emitters. Error bars = 1 SE. *** indicates P < 0.001.

Showing differences between sexes in communication is important, but the next step is to figure out how this happens.  In previous research, Moreira and his colleagues identified seven different VOCs that Baccharis emitted after aphid herbivory.  So they explored whether there were differences between males and females in how much of each VOC they emitted in response to aphids.  As before, they subjected some plants (of each sex) to herbivory and others were untreated controls. They then bagged each plant, and passed the collected vapors over a charcoal filter trap at a constant rate for an equal period of time.  After extracting the substances from the charcoal, the researchers used a gas chromatograph to identify and quantify the VOCs.


Setup for collecting VOCs from Baccharis salicifolia. Credit X. Moreira.

The most impressive finding was a fivefold increase in pinocarvone release by female herbivore-induced plants in comparison to controls.  In contrast, in males there was only a minor pinocarvone effect.


Relative increase in VOC emission following aphid attack in female (clear triangle) vs. male (filled triangle) Baccharis salicifolia. The induction effect is the log response ration (LRR) which is the natural log of (emission by the herbivore induced plants divided by the emission by the control plants).  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.

Having discovered that females emit much more pinocarvone than males, the next question was whether females are more sensitive to pinocarvone, or in fact to any of the other VOCs.  So Moreira and his colleagues exposed plants to one of three treatments: 100 ul of pure pinocarvone, 100 ul of six VOCs including pinocarvone, and a control (no VOCs).  They discovered that all experimental treatments reduced herbivory in comparison to the controls, but that there was no difference between males and females in how they responded.


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on female plants (left graph) or male plants (right graph) subjected to pinocarvone or a blend of six VOCs (including pinocarvone) in comparison to reproductive performance on untreated control plants (dashed line on top of each graph).  Shading surrounding dashed line indicates 1 SE.  Error bars are 1 SE.

This lack of different response between male and female plants to pinocarvone was a bit surprising; the researchers speculate that both males and females have pinocarvone receptors, but that female receptors are more sensitive (or numerous). If true, natural emissions of pinocarvone may suffice to induce a response in female but not male plants. But the artificial emitters may have released enough pinocarvone to stimulate male plants to respond as well. Clearly there is much more work to do here.

The researchers also wanted to know whether plants were more sensitive to VOCs produced by genetically identical plants (clones) in comparison to genetically-distant plants.  They discovered no influence of genetic relatedness on plant response to herbivory.  This is important, because from an evolutionary standpoint, there is no obvious reason why a plant would want to warn an unrelated plant that it was about to get eaten. An adaptive explanation is that relatives may tend to live near each other, so an emitter plant still benefits indirectly by promoting the survival of relatives who carry a proportion of genes identical to its own genetic constitution. One possible non-adaptive explanation is that a plant may use VOCs as a way of quickly communicating with itself, informing distant tissues that they need to produce defense compounds.  Nearby plants may simply be eavesdropping on this conversation, and using it to their advantage.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Moreira, X., Nell, C. S., Meza‐Lopez, M. M., Rasmann, S. and Mooney, K. A. (2018), Specificity of plant–plant communication for Baccharis salicifolia sexes but not genotypes. Ecology, 99: 2731-2739. doi:10.1002/ecy.2534. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


Girl and boy flowers support different microbe communities.

Most of us are accustomed to thinking about sexual dimorphism in animals.  Male lions have manes, and male deer have antlers and generally larger bodies than female deer.  In many species, male birds have more complex sings and more colorful plumage. Perhaps less familiar is that female insects are generally larger than males of the same species.  But many of us are unaware that sexual dimorphism exists in some plant species as well.

As a child, Kaoru Tsuji spent considerable time watching insects on plants.  Later, as an undergraduate at Kyoto University in Japan, she noticed that larvae of a particular geometrid moth only visited male Eurya japonica plants, but not females. This led to her graduate work on how plant sexes affect herbivorous insects, and later, more broadly, on how plant sexual dimorphism affects other species in the community.


Kaoru Tsuji gazes at female Eurya emarginata plant. Credit: Noriyo Tsuji.

At the 2014 Ecological Society of America meetings, Tsuji heard Tadashi Fukami talk about microbial communities in flower nectar, and realized that she could learn to apply Fukami’s techniques to the microbial communities living within Eurya flowers.  After working three months in Tadashi’s lab, Tsuji was now ready to explore whether two plant species, Eurya japonica and Eurya emarginata, host different communities of bacteria and fungi in the flowers of male and female plants.


Male and female flowers of the two study species visited by pollinators.  These photos are not to scale; in actuality the male flower is substantially larger.  You can get a sense of this by noting that the same insect pollinator, the fly Stomorhina obsoleta, is pictured in figure a and near the top left of figure b.

For both species, male flowers tend to be larger, while female flowers tend to have sweeter nectar. Higher sugar levels will increase the chemical stress experienced by microbial organisms living in the nectar. Because the inside of a microbial cell has a lower sugar concentration (and thus a higher water concentration) than the sugar rich nectar environment, water tends to leave the microbial cell, leading to severe dehydration. Thus Tsuji and Fukami expected to find lower microbial abundance in female flower nectar.

Complicating this situation, animal visitors, such as bees and flies, also influence the microbial community in at least two ways.  First, many nectar-colonizing microbes depend on animals to disperse them to new flowers. Second, the interaction of nectar production, water evaporation and consumption by bees and flies can change the concentration of sugar in the nectar.  If there are few (or no) animals drinking the nectar, water will evaporate, sugar will remain, and the nectar will become more and more concentrated (sweeter) as more nectar is secreted over time.  But if nectar gets consumed, the new secretions will simply replace the old nectar, and sugar levels should be relatively constant. Thus flowers without animal visitors should impose more chemical stress on microorganisms by virtue of being sweeter.

The researchers sampled nectar from 1736 flowers, and grew the nectar microbes on agar plates supplied with nutrients that would support either bacterial or fungal growth.  In addition, the researchers also placed small-mesh bags over a subset of these flowers (before they opened), to reduce animal visitation.  After five days they counted the number of colonies formed, to estimate microbial abundance. Unfortunately, microbes were rarely found in E. japonica, so most of the data are for E. emarginata flowers only.


Female flowers of Eurya emarginata visited by a fly, Stomorhina obsoleta. Agar plates showing isolated colonies of nectar-colonizing microbes are superimposed. Left and right plates have yeast and bacterial colonies, respecitevly, both isolated from E. emarginata nectar. Credit: Kaoru Tsuji and Yuichiro Kanzaki.

First, as expected, female flowers had higher nectar sugar levels than did male flowers (the Brix value measures sucrose concentration).  In addition, putting a fine mesh bag over the buds substantially increased sugar levels in nectar from flowers of both sexes.


Sucrose (Brix) concentration of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes.  For box plots, the dark horizontal bar is the median value, while the box encloses the 25th and 75th percentile.

The proportion of flowers in which fungi and bacteria were detected was much greater in male flowers than in female flowers.  In male flowers only, bagging the flowers decreased fungal frequency but not bacteria frequency.


The proportion of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers whose nectar, when cultured in the appropriate medium, generated fungal colonies (top graph) and bacterial colonies (bottom graph).

The researchers used colony forming units (CFUs) – the number of viable colonies on the agar plate – as their measure of bacterial abundance.


Abundance of fungi (top) and bacteria (bottom) cultured in agar plates, that were swabbed with nectar derived from exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes. Note that the y-axis is log10 CFUs, so an increase from 3 to 4 (for example) is actually a tenfold increase in number of CFUs.

As expected, fungi were less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  In addition, bagging the flowers substantially reduced fungal abundance. Bacteria were also less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  Surprisingly, bagging the flowers substantially increased bacterial abundance, despite the increased chemical stress and decreased visitation by animal visitors.

Why did bacterial abundance increase when flowers were bagged?  The researchers hypothesize that reduced fungal dispersal from bagging caused competitive release of bacteria from the fungi.  Presumably the fungi and bacteria compete for essential resources (such as amino acids) in the nectar.  Because the bags reduce fungal abundance, there are fewer fungi to out-compete the bacteria, leading to an increase in bacterial abundance.

The researchers used DNA analysis to characterize which microbial species were found in female vs. male flowers.  They discovered major differences in species composition between the sexes.  Taken together with the data on frequency and abundance, it is clear that sexual dimorphism in these plants influences microbial communities in significant ways.  Tsuji and Fukami suggest that sexual dimorphism in many species may have profound community-wide consequences that researchers are only beginning to understand and uncover.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Tsuji, K. and Fukami, T. (2018), Community‐wide consequences of sexual dimorphism: evidence from nectar microbes in dioecious plants. Ecology, 99: 2476-2484. doi:10.1002/ecy.2494. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.