Modification of esterified cell wall phenolics increases vulnerability of tall fescue to herbivory by the fall armyworm.
Feruloylation of arabinoxylan in grass cell walls leads to cross-linked xylans. Such cross-linking appears to play a role in plant resistance to pathogens and insect herbivores. In this study, we investigated the effect of ferulate cross-linking on resistance to herbivory by fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) making use of genetically modified tall fescue [Schedonorus arundinaceus (Festuca arundinacea)] expressing a ferulic acid esterase gene. Mature leaves of these plants have significant reduced levels of cell wall ferulates and diferulates but no change in acid detergent lignin. These reduced levels of esterified cell wall ferulates in transgenic plants had a positive effect on all measures of armyworm larval performance examined. More larvae survived (89 vs. 57%) and grew faster (pupated 2.1 days sooner) when fed transgenic leaves with reduced levels of cell wall ferulates, than when fed control tall fescue leaves where levels of cell wall ferulates were not altered. Overall, mortality, growth and food utilization were negatively associated with level of esterified cell wall ferulates and diferulates in leaves they were fed. This study is the first to use transgenic plants with modified level of cell wall esterified ferulates to test the role of feruloylation in plant resistance to insects. It is concluded that the accumulation of ferulates and the cross-linking of arabinoxylans via diferulate esters in the leaves of tall fescue underlies the physical barrier to insect herbivory. Reducing ferulate cross-linking in grass cell walls could increase susceptibility of these plants to insect folivores.