Primary Metabolism co-Opted for Defensive Chemical Production in the Carabid Beetle, Harpalus pensylvanicus

Adam M. Rork, Sihang Xu, Athula Attygalle, Tanya Renner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Of the approximately one million described insect species, ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) have long captivated the attention of evolutionary biologists due to the diversity of defensive compounds they synthesize. Produced using defensive glands in the abdomen, ground beetle chemicals represent over 250 compounds including predator-deterring formic acid, which has evolved as a defensive strategy at least three times across Insecta. Despite being a widespread method of defense, formic acid biosynthesis is poorly understood in insects. Previous studies have suggested that the folate cycle of one-carbon (C1) metabolism, a pathway involved in nucleotide biosynthesis, may play a key role in defensive-grade formic acid production in ants. Here, we report on the defensive gland transcriptome of the formic acid-producing ground beetle Harpalus pensylvanicus. The full suite of genes involved in the folate cycle of C1 metabolism are significantly differentially expressed in the defensive glands of H. pensylvanicus when compared to gene expression profiles in the rest of the body. We also find support for two additional pathways potentially involved in the biosynthesis of defensive-grade formic acid, the kynurenine pathway and the methionine salvage cycle. Additionally, we have found an array of differentially expressed genes in the secretory lobes involved in the biosynthesis and transport of cofactors necessary for formic acid biosynthesis, as well as genes presumably involved in the detoxification of secondary metabolites including formic acid. We also provide insight into the evolution of the predominant gene family involved in the folate cycle (MTHFD) and suggest that high expression of folate cycle genes rather than gene duplication and/or neofunctionalization may be more important for defensive-grade formic acid biosynthesis in H. pensylvanicus. This provides the first evidence in Coleoptera and one of a few examples in Insecta of a primary metabolic process being co-opted for defensive chemical biosynthesis. Our results shed light on potential mechanisms of formic acid biosynthesis in the defensive glands of a ground beetle and provide a foundation for further studies into the evolution of formic acid-based chemical defense strategies in insects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)334-349
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Chemical Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry


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