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Investigating microbially mediated tolerance to herbivory in wild and domesticated tomatoes
As the root microbiome’s role in plant defenses against herbivory becomes clearer, scientific focus has lingered on a single side of plant defenses: resistance. Its counterpart, tolerance, is comparatively overlooked despite its power as an evolutionarily sustainable mitigator of herbivore damage. This thesis seeks to supplement our limited understanding of the extent to which tolerance to herbivory may be influenced by rhizosphere microbial communities. First, in an agricultural field setting, I (1) quantified domesticated tomato cultivar and wild ancestor tolerance to herbivory form the specialist tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and (2) characterized the bacterial and fungal rhizosphere communities associating with high and low tolerance plants. In a subsequent greenhouse experiment, I grew these same tomato lines in either sterilized or unsterilized soil and re-challenged plants with tobacco hornworms to tease apart the contributions from host plant and rhizosphere microbiome in expressing tolerance to herbivory. In the field, wild tomato lines excelled at tolerating hornworm herbivory, while their domesticated counterparts suffered 26% yield losses under herbivory. Rhizosphere community characteristics were most reliably shaped by timepoint of rhizosphere sampling, and more subtly by tomato line and herbivory treatments. Fungal and bacterial community traits that associated with high tolerance lines include (1) high diversity, (2) resistance to community shifts under herbivory, and (3) the abundance of ASVs belonging to Strenotrophomonas, Sphingobacterium, and Sphingomonas. When re-challenging these lines with hornworm herbivory in the greenhouse, expressed tolerance to tobacco hornworm damage was inverted from field trends. Though wild lines suffered yield losses when grown in +microbiome treatments, we found no consistent interactions between herbivory and microbiome treatments that might indicate that +microbiome treatments either helped or hampered plant expression of tolerance to herbivory under greenhouse conditions. These experiments shed light on what role, if any, the rhizosphere microbiome plays in plant tolerance to herbivory. Ultimately, understanding the qualities of tolerance-conferring microbiomes can (1) open avenues through which plant defenses may be amended in pest management, either through microbial inoculants or plant breeding efforts aimed at enhancing crop recruitment of beneficial microbiomes; and (2) ameliorate our understanding of the tripartite interactions between host plants, their rhizospheres, and their specialist herbivores.