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The peach-potato aphid (Myzus percicae). © INRA, Elodie Naessens

Aphids subvert plant immune responses

Aphids can successfully feed on plants because they have a way of inhibiting plant immune defenses. INRA and CNRS researchers have just discovered that aphids exploit one of their own immune system proteins to attack and suppress their hosts’ immune responses. These findings were published online in Current Biology on June 25, 2015.

Updated on 09/14/2015
Published on 06/26/2015
Keywords: aphid - feeding

The pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum). © INRA
The pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) © INRA
Aphids are phytophagous insects that cause significant damage to several types of crops. At present, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that these sap-feeders use to subvert the immune systems of their host plants.

INRA and CNRS researchers studied two different aphid species, the pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) and the peach-potato aphid (Myzus percicae). They discovered that both have several types of macrophage migration inhibitory factors (MIFs). The pea aphid has five and the peach-potato aphid has three. These molecules are proteins that play a significant role in mediating the immune responses of vertebrates. This is the first time they have been found to be used by aphids.

The peach-potato aphid (Myzus percicae). © INRA, Elodie Naessens
The peach-potato aphid (Myzus percicae) © INRA, Elodie Naessens
The researchers were also surprised to discover that one of these proteins, MIF1, was found in the salivary glands of both species. It is secreted in the saliva, suggesting it plays a role in aphid feeding physiology. Additional research has shown that aphids need MIF1 to successfully feed on plants. Indeed, once the protein enters a plant’s tissues, it significantly inhibits the plant’s immune responses. For instance, it impedes one of the first lines of defense: the deposition of callose, a large polysaccharide that reinforces the plant’s cell walls. Aphids in which MIF1 expression has been blocked can no longer feed and have a high mortality rate.

It is unclear how, over the course of evolution, aphids have managed to transform an immune system molecule that helps them fight infections into a molecule that helps them subvert their hosts’ immune systems. It is already known that certain parasites of vertebrates, such as nematodes, ticks, and protozoans, use MIFs to mediate the immune responses of their respective hosts. However, this is the first research to show that a phytophagous parasite can do the same.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Harald Keller (33 (0)4 92 38 65 94) Institut Sophia Agrobiotech (INRA, CNRS, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis)
  • Christine Coustau (33 (0)4 92 38 64 89) Institut Sophia Agrobiotech (INRA, CNRS, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis)
Press Relations:
INRA News Office (33 (0)1 42 75 91 86)
Associated Division(s):
Plant Health and Environment
Associated Centre(s):
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur


A secreted MIF cytokine enables aphid feeding and represses plant immune responses. E. Naessens, G. Dubreuil, P. Giordanengo, O. Baron, N. Minet-Kebdani, H. Keller & C. Coustau. Current Biology (online), 25 June 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.047