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Sequestration and biosynthesis of cyanogenic glucosides in passion vine butterflies and consequences for the diversification of their host plants.

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Pinheiro de Castro, Érika C  ORCID logo
Zikan Cardoso, Márcio  ORCID logo


The colorful heliconiine butterflies are distasteful to predators due to their content of defense compounds called cyanogenic glucosides (CNglcs), which they biosynthesize from aliphatic amino acids. Heliconiine larvae feed exclusively on Passiflora plants where ~30 kinds of CNglcs have been reported. Among them, some CNglcs derived from cyclopentenyl glycine can be sequestered by some Heliconius species. In order to understand the evolution of biosynthesis and sequestration of CNglcs in these butterflies and its consequences for their arms race with Passiflora plants, we analyzed the CNglc distribution in selected heliconiine and Passiflora species. Sequestration of cyclopentenyl CNglcs is not an exclusive trait of Heliconius, since these compounds were present in other heliconiines such as Philaethria, Dryas and Agraulis, and in more distantly related genera Cethosia and Euptoieta. Thus, it is likely that the ability to sequester cyclopentenyl CNglcs arose in an ancestor of the Heliconiinae subfamily. Biosynthesis of aliphatic CNglcs is widespread in these butterflies, although some species from the sara-sapho group seem to have lost this ability. The CNglc distribution within Passiflora suggests that they might have diversified their cyanogenic profile to escape heliconiine herbivory. This systematic analysis improves our understanding on the evolution of cyanogenesis in the heliconiine-Passiflora system.



Heliconius, Lepidoptera, Passiflora, coevolution, cyanide, specialized metabolites

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Ecol Evol

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