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Convergent evolution of cardiac-glycoside resistance in predators and parasites of milkweed herbivores.


The community of plant-feeding insects (herbivores) that specialize on milkweeds (Apocynaceae) form a remarkable example of convergent evolution across levels of biological organization1. In response to toxic cardiac glycosides produced by these plants, the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and other specialist herbivores have evolved parallel substitutions in the alpha subunit (ATPA) of the Na+/K+-ATPase. These substitutions render the pump insensitive to cardiac glycosides2,3, allowing the monarch and other specialists, from aphids to beetles, to sequester cardiac glycosides, which in turn provide defense against attacks by enemies from the third trophic level4. The evolution of 'target-site-insensitivity' substitutions in these herbivores poses a fundamental biological question: have predators and parasitoids that feed on cardiac-glycoside-sequestering insects also evolved Na+/K+-ATPases that are similarly insensitive to cardiac glycosides (as predicted by Whiteman and Mooney)5? In other words, can plant toxins cause evolutionary cascades that reach the third trophic level? Here we show that at least four enemies of the monarch and other milkweed herbivores have indeed evolved amino-acid substitutions associated with target-site insensitivity to cardiac glycosides. These attackers represent four major animal clades, implicating cardiac glycosides as keystone molecules6 and establishing ATPalpha, which encodes ATPA, as a keystone gene with effects that reverberate within ecological communities7.

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