Macroevolutionary chemical escalation in an ancient plant-herbivore arms race

Judith X. Becerra, Koji Noge, D. Lawrence Venable

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

125 Scopus citations


A central paradigm in the field of plant-herbivore interactions is that the diversity and complexity of secondary compounds in plants have intensified over evolutionary time, resulting in the great variety of secondary products that currently exists. Unfortunately, testing of this proposal has been very limited. We analyzed the volatile chemistry of 70 species of the tropical plant genus Bursera and used a molecular phylogeny to test whether the species' chemical diversity or complexity have escalated. The results confirm that as new species diverged over time they tended to be armed not only with more compounds/species, but also with compounds that could potentially be more difficult for herbivores to adapt to because they belong to an increasing variety of chemical pathways. Overall chemical diversity in the genus also increased, but not as fast as species diversity, possibly because of allopatric species gaining improved defense with compounds that are new locally, but already in existence elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18062-18066
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number43
StatePublished - 2009


  • Bursera
  • Chemical complexity
  • Chemical diversity
  • Coevolution
  • Evolution of secondary compounds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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