Sterols serve three critical functions in insects: (1) they are important components of cellular membranes, (2) they are precursors for many hormones (e.g. 20-OH ecdysone) and (3) they play a role in regulating genes involved in developmental processes. Insects, however, differ from most other animals in that they have a dietary requirement for sterols because they lack the ability to biosynthesise sterols. Cholesterol (right) is the dominant sterol found in most insects, but since plants rarely contain it, insect herbivores must either metabolise plant sterols or use them as they are. Cholesterol is characterized by a double bond at position 5, and no alkyl group on the side chain.
At least 100 different sterols have been identified in plants (e.g. sitosterol, stigmasterol and spinasterol - see below), but metabolic constraints in insects can limit the range of phytosterols that can be converted to cholesterol. We are interested in how small structural differences can influence insect behaviour and physiology, including utilisation and metabolism, and the manner in which these subtle differences can influence evolutionary processes.
Variation in Plant Sterol Structure. Sitosterol is the most abundant and common plant sterol. It has a double bond at position 5 (similar to cholesterol), but like most plant sterols it has an alkyl group (green structure) on the side chain. Stigmasterol is another relatively common plant sterol. In contrast to sitosterol, it has a double bond at position 22 on the side chain. Spinasterol, a plant sterol found in spinach, also has a double bond at position 22, but differs from sitosterol and stigmasterol by having a double bond at position 7 in the sterol nucleus. From a grasshoppers point of view, sitosterol is a "good" sterol since it can be metabolised to cholesterol. On the other hand, stigmasterol and spinasterol are considered "bad" sterols since they cannot be metabolised to cholesterol (for more details, see Behmer et al. 1999b).
Our early research into insect sterol biology was conducted on grasshoppers, and in these insects we find that extreme sterol metabolic constraints are a shared trait (Behmer and Elias 2000). Particularly fascinating, though, is that grasshoppers suffer high levels of mortality when they accumulate unmetabolized "bad" sterols above a certain threshold, even if the proper amount of a "good" sterol is obtained (Behmer and Elias 1999a, 2000). It remains unknown, however, whether this is due to interruption of cell structural features or an inability to make the important cholesterol-derived steroid hormones.
More recently we have been looking at sterol use in a range of pest caterpillars and hemipterans, both on artificial diets with different sterol combinations, and on transgenically modified tobacco and Arabidopsis plants. The early caterpillar work was part of Xiangfeng Jing's Ph.D. research, and was funded by a grant from the USDA (w/ Bob Grebenok). We also received funding from the USDA to examine sterol use in aphids (in collaboration with Angela Douglas and Bob Grebenok); this grant also examined sterol profiles in hemipterans more broadly. We are currently on our third round of USDA funding. Our most recent project is a collaborative effort (Bob Grebenok, Keyan Zhu-Salzman and Heiko Vogel) where we are manipulating plant sterol profiles using RNAi techniques, and investigating molecular aspects of insect sterol use (in caterpillars).
Jing, X., Grebenok, R.J. and Behmer, S.T. (2014) Balance matters: How the ratio of dietary
steroids affects caterpillar development, growth and reproduction. Journal of Insect
Bouvaine, S., Faure, M-L., Grebenok, R. J., Behmer, S.T., and Douglas, A.E. (2014)
A dietary test of putative deleterious sterols for the aphid Myzus persicae.
PLoS ONE 9, e86256. [pdf]
Jing, X., Grebenok, R.J., Behmer, S.T. (2013) Sterol/steroid metabolism and absorption in a
Thompson, B.M., Grebenok, R.J., Behmer, S.T., and Gruner, D.S. (2013) Microbial
Behmer, S.T., Olszewski, N., Sebastiani, J., Palka, S., Sparacino, G., Sciarrno, E., and
Jing, X., Grebenok, R.J., and Behmer, S.T. (2012) Plant sterols and host plant suitability for
Bouvaine, S., Behmer, S.T., Lin, G.G., Faure, M-L., Grebenok, R.J., and Douglas, A.E. (2012)
Behmer, S.T., Grebenok, R.J., and Douglas, A.E. (2011) Plant sterols and host plant suitability
Janson, E.M. Grebenok, R.J., Behmer, S.T., and Abbot, P. (2009) Same host-plant, different
Behmer, S.T. and Nes, W. D. (2003) Insect sterol nutrition and physiology: a global
Behmer, S.T. and Elias, D.O. (2000) Sterol metabolic constraints as a factor contributing
Behmer, S.T., Elias, D.O. and Bernays, E.A. (1999a) Post-ingestive feedbacks and
Behmer, S.T., Elias, D.O. and Grebenok, R.J. (1999b) Phytosterol metabolism and
Behmer, S.T. and Elias, D.O. (1999a) The nutritional significance of sterol metabolic
Behmer, S.T. and Elias, D.O. (1999b) Phytosterol structure as a basis of food aversion
Behmer, S.T. and Grebenok, R.J. (1998) Impact of dietary sterols on life-history traits of