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PNAS 104 (13): 5467-5472

Copyright © 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences.

From the Cover


Within-plant signaling by volatiles leads to induction and priming of an indirect plant defense in nature

Martin Heil*, and Juan Carlos Silva Bueno

Fachbereich 9, Allgemeine Botanik/Pflanzenökologie, Universität Duisburg–Essen, Universitätstrasse 5, D-45117 Essen, Germany

Edited by James H. Tumlinson, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, and approved January 22, 2007

Received for publication November 22, 2006.

Abstract: Plants respond to herbivore attack with the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can attract predatory arthropods and/or repel herbivores and thus serve as a means of defense against herbivores. Such VOCs might also be perceived by neighboring plants to adjust their defensive phenotype according to the present risk of attack. We exposed lima bean plants at their natural growing site to volatiles of beetle-damaged conspecific shoots. This reduced herbivore damage and increased the growth rate of the exposed plants. To investigate whether VOCs also can serve in signaling processes within the same individual plant we focused on undamaged "receiver" leaves that were either exposed or not exposed to VOCs released by induced "emitter" leaves. Extrafloral nectar secretion by receiver leaves increased when they were exposed to VOCs of induced emitters of neighboring plants or of the same shoot, yet not when VOCs were removed from the system. Extrafloral nectar attracts predatory arthropods and represents an induced defense mechanism. The volatiles also primed extrafloral nectar secretion to show an augmented response to subsequent damage. Herbivore-induced VOCs elicit a defensive response in undamaged plants (or parts of plants) under natural conditions, and they function as external signal for within-plant communication, thus serving also a physiological role in the systemic response of a plant to local damage.

Key Words: ant–plant interaction • extrafloral nectar • indirect defense • lima bean • plant–plant communication

Author contributions: M.H. and J.C.S.B. designed research; M.H. and J.C.S.B. performed research; M.H. analyzed data; and M.H. wrote the paper.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

This article is a PNAS direct submission.

See Commentary on page 5257.

This article contains supporting information online at

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: martin.heil{at}

© 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA

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