Background In native environments plants frequently experience simultaneous or sequential unfavourable abiotic and biotic stresses. The plant’s response to combined stresses is usually not the sum of the individual responses. Here we investigated the impact of cold on plant defense against subsequent herbivory by a generalist and specialist insect.
Results We determined transcriptional responses of Arabidopsis thaliana to low temperature stress (4 °C) and subsequent larval feeding damage by the lepidopteran herbivores Mamestra brassicae (generalist), Pieris brassicae (specialist) or artificial wounding. Furthermore, we compared the performance of larvae feeding upon cold-experienced or untreated plants. Prior experience of cold strongly affected the plant’s transcriptional anti-herbivore and wounding response. Feeding by P. brassicae, M. brassicae and artificial wounding induced transcriptional changes of 1975, 1695, and 2239 genes, respectively. Of these, 125, 360, and 681 genes were differentially regulated when cold preceded the tissue damage. Overall, prior experience of cold mostly reduced the transcriptional response of genes to damage. The percentage of damage-responsive genes, which showed attenuated transcriptional regulation when cold preceded the tissue damage, was highest in M. brassicae damaged plants (98%), intermediate in artificially damaged plants (89%), and lowest in P. brassicae damaged plants (69%). Consistently, the generalist M. brassicae performed better on cold-treated than on untreated plants, whereas the performance of the specialist P. brassicae did not differ.
Conclusions The transcriptional defense response of Arabidopsis leaves to feeding by herbivorous insects and artificial wounding is attenuated by a prior exposure of the plant to cold. This attenuation correlates with improved performance of the generalist herbivore M. brassicae, but not the specialist P. brassicae, a herbivore of the same feeding guild.