Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 45, Issue 11–12, pp 982–992 | Cite as

Molasses Grass Induces Direct and Indirect Defense Responses in Neighbouring Maize Plants

  • Tigist A. Tolosa
  • Amanuel TamiruEmail author
  • Charles A. O. Midega
  • Johnnie Van Den Berg
  • Michael A. Birkett
  • Christine M. Woodcock
  • Toby J. A. Bruce
  • Segenet Kelemu
  • John A. Pickett
  • Zeyaur R. Khan


Plants have evolved intricate defence strategies against herbivore attack which can include activation of defence in response to stress-related volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by neighbouring plants. VOCs released by intact molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora), have been shown to repel stemborer, Chilo partellus (Swinhoe), from maize and enhance parasitism by Cotesia sesamiae (Cameron). In this study, we tested whether the molasses grass VOCs have a role in plant-plant communication by exposing different maize cultivars to molasses grass for a 3-week induction period and then observing insect responses to the exposed plants. In bioassays, C. partellus preferred non-exposed maize landrace plants for egg deposition to those exposed to molasses grass. Conversely, C. sesamiae parasitoid wasps preferred volatiles from molasses grass exposed maize landraces compared to volatiles from unexposed control plants. Interestingly, the molasses grass induced defence responses were not observed on hybrid maize varieties tested, suggesting that the effect was not simply due to absorption and re-emission of VOCs. Chemical and electrophysiological analyses revealed strong induction of bioactive compounds such as (R)-linalool, (E)-4,8-dimethyl-1,3,7-nonatriene and (E,E)-4,8,12-trimethyl-1,3,7,11-tridecatetraene from maize landraces exposed to molasses grass volatiles. Our results suggest that constitutively emitted molasses grass VOCs can induce direct and indirect defence responses in neighbouring maize landraces. Plants activating defences by VOC exposure alone could realize enhanced levels of resistance and fitness compared to those that launch defence responses upon herbivore attack. Opportunities for exploiting plant-plant signalling to develop ecologically sustainable crop protection strategies against devastating insect pests such as stemborer C. partellus are discussed.


Chilo partellus Induced defence Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) Maize landraces Melinis minutiflora 



We are grateful to western Kenya farmers who provided the local maize cultivars. We thank Amos Gadi, Isaac Odera, Silas Ouko, and Daniel Simiyu for insect rearing, technical assistance and screen house operations and Daisy Salifu for statistical advice. T.A.T. was supported by a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) In-Region Postgraduate Scholarship. icipe gratefully acknowledge the financial support by European Union, UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Kenyan Government. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of these donors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tigist A. Tolosa
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Amanuel Tamiru
    • 1
    Email author
  • Charles A. O. Midega
    • 1
  • Johnnie Van Den Berg
    • 2
  • Michael A. Birkett
    • 4
  • Christine M. Woodcock
    • 4
  • Toby J. A. Bruce
    • 5
  • Segenet Kelemu
    • 1
  • John A. Pickett
    • 6
  • Zeyaur R. Khan
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.International Centre of Insect Physiology and EcologyNairobiKenya
  2. 2.Unit for Environmental Sciences and ManagementNorth-West UniversityPotchefstroomSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of Agriculture Food and Resource SciencesUniversity of Maryland Eastern ShorePrincess AnneUSA
  4. 4.Biointeractions and Crop Protection Department, Rothamsted ResearchHarpendenUK
  5. 5.School of Life SciencesKeele UniversityStaffordshireUK
  6. 6.School of ChemistryCardiff UniversityCardiffUK

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