Crop pest’s tastes in sugar change as they age, study suggests

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As we get older, we may have changing tastes. We can switch from drinking cola to wine, or from eating white chocolate to dark chocolate. According to a new study, the cotton bollworm also experiences such changing tastes, with the larvae and adult forms of the creature having different sugar-sensing systems.

The cotton bollworm, a global pest, causes approximately $3 billion in economic losses to farmers annually. It is often hosted by plants such as tomatoes.

The worm has significantly different eating habits: from the larval stage, in which it eats the leaves, fruits and flower buds of plants, to the adult stage, in which it feasts on the sugar-rich nectar of plants. According to previous studies, the cotton bollworm’s external gustatory sensory neurons (GSNs) – which send taste signals to the brain – are found on the maxillary galea, an area around the mouth in larvae, but the antennae, the tarsi (leg segments furthest from the body), and the proboscis, which has a similar structure to the human tongue, in the adult.

In the current study, researchers compared the behavioral and electrophysiological responses of both adult and larval cotton bollworms to seven different types of sugars found in plants, including glucose, fructose and sucrose.

They found that although both larvae and adults have GSNs that detect sugar, they respond very differently. Larvae are between 100 and 1000 times more sensitive to sucrose than adults. This, the study suggests, could explain why young larvae are attracted to leaves instead of nectar. They can detect sucrose more effectively in areas where it is scarce, such as plant tissue.

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