Cost of defense in the context of plant competition: Brassica rapa may grow and defend

David H. Siemens, Shannon H. Garner, Thomas Mitchell-Olds, Ragan M. Callaway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


Theory on costs of plant defense against herbivory in stressful environments predicts that costs should increase when competition is intense. This amplifies a fundamental dilemma that plants are thought to face: allocate limited resources to grow fast enough to compete, or invest these resources in secondary metabolites to maintain defense. We studied costs associated with genetic and environmental variation in secondary metabolite production of Brassica rapa in the presence and absence of the generalist competitor Lolium perenne. We used experimental quantitative genetics (artificial selection) to manipulate genetic variation, and herbivore-induction treatments to produce environmental variation in myrosinase and glucosinolate concentrations and resistance. Glucosinolates, and their byproducts after breakdown by myrosinase, are known to affect herbivory on plants in the Brassicaceae family. Defense costs were significant in the absence of competitors, but in contrast to theoretical predictions, costs of constitutive defense (measured as growth rates) were not detectable and the cost of induced defense remained the same in the competitive environment. To understand what factors made constitutive defense costs not detectable under competition we conducted several experiments to assess the effects of limited resources and allelopathy on costs and benefits of the defense chemicals. None of the experiments involving nutrient supply and weak competition supported the hypothesis that the lack of defense costs in competitive environments was due to limited resources. Instead, the breakdown products of the glucosinolate-myrosinase reaction appeared to function as allelopathic agents, which may benefit B. rapa plants in competition, thereby reducing net costs of chemical defense. We found that: (1) the effects of exogenous glucosinolates on Lolium root length depended on the presence of myrosinase. (2) In the absence of nutrients, Lolium root lengths were shorter when seeds germinated with B. rapa. (3) Genetic increases in glucosinolate concentration negatively affected Lolium seedling growth only when there were simultaneous genetic increases in myrosinase concentration. Activated carbon treatments designed to neutralize allelopathic effects and restore costs in the competitive environments were, however, not statistically significant. When plant defenses also function to benefit plants in competitive interactions, plants may evolve to compete and defend.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)505-517
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Allelopathy
  • Artificial selection
  • Brassica rapa
  • Constitutive defenses
  • Costs of defense
  • Herbivory
  • Inducible defenses
  • Interspecific competition
  • Lolium perenne
  • Nutrient availability
  • Plant stress
  • Plutella xylostella


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