Host-Specific larval lepidopteran mortality to pathogenic Serratia mediated by poor diet

Charles J. Mason, Michelle Peiffer, Gary W. Felton, Kelli Hoover

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Insect guts often harbor an abundance of bacteria. Many of these members are commensal, but some may emerge as opportunistic pathogens when the host is under stress. In this study, we evaluated how dietary nutritional concentration mediates a shift from commensal to pathogenic, and if host species influences those interactions. We used the lepidopterans (Noctuidae) fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua), and corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) as hosts and a Serratia strain initially isolated from healthy fall armyworm. Diet concentration was altered by bulk reduction in nutritional content with dilution using cellulose. Our experiments revealed that low nutrient diet increased mortality from Serratia for beet armyworm and corn earworm. However, for fall armyworm, little mortality was observed in any of the diet combinations. Dietary nutrition and oral inoculation with Serratia did not change the expression of two antimicrobial peptides in fall and beet armyworm, suggesting that other mechanisms that mediate mortality were involved. Our results have implications for how pathogens may persist as commensals in the digestive tract of insects. These findings also suggest that diet plays a very important role in the switch from commensal to pathogen. Finally, our data indicate that the host response to changing conditions is critical in determining if a pathogen may overtake its host and that these three lepidopteran species have different responses to opportunistic enteric pathogens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107818
JournalJournal of invertebrate pathology
StatePublished - Oct 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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