Background Plants can defend themselves against herbivorous insects prior to the onset of larval feeding by responding to the eggs laid on their leaves. In the European field elm (Ulmus minor), egg laying by the elm leaf beetle ( Xanthogaleruca luteola) activates the emission of volatiles that attract specialised egg parasitoids, which in turn kill the eggs. Little is known about the transcriptional changes that insect eggs trigger in plants and how such indirect defense mechanisms are orchestrated in the context of other biological processes.
Results Here we present the first large scale study of egg-induced changes in the transcriptional profile of a tree. Five cDNA libraries were generated from leaves of (i) untreated control elms, and elms treated with (ii) egg laying and feeding by elm leaf beetles, (iii) feeding, (iv) artificial transfer of egg clutches, and (v) methyl jasmonate. A total of 361,196 ESTs expressed sequence tags (ESTs) were identified which clustered into 52,823 unique transcripts (Unitrans) and were stored in a database with a public web interface. Among the analyzed Unitrans, 73% could be annotated by homology to known genes in the UniProt (Plant) database, particularly to those from Vitis, Ricinus, Populus and Arabidopsis. Comparative in silico analysis among the different treatments revealed differences in Gene Ontology term abundances. Defense- and stress-related gene transcripts were present in high abundance in leaves after herbivore egg laying, but transcripts involved in photosynthesis showed decreased abundance. Many pathogen-related genes and genes involved in phytohormone signaling were expressed, indicative of jasmonic acid biosynthesis and activation of jasmonic acid responsive genes. Cross-comparisons between different libraries based on expression profiles allowed the identification of genes with a potential relevance in egg-induced defenses, as well as other biological processes, including signal transduction, transport and primary metabolism.
Conclusion Here we present a dataset for a large-scale study of the mechanisms of plant defense against insect eggs in a co-evolved, natural ecological plant–insect system. The EST database analysis provided here is a first step in elucidating the transcriptional responses of elm to elm leaf beetle infestation, and adds further to our knowledge on insect egg-induced transcriptomic changes in plants. The sequences identified in our comparative analysis give many hints about novel defense mechanisms directed towards eggs.