The leafhopper Mgenia fuscovaria Stål (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae) is a vector of aster yellows phytoplasma (AY), 'Candidatus Phytoplasma asteris', in grapevine, Vitis vinifera L. (Vitaceae), in South Africa. In a previous study, M. fuscovaria was preferentially attracted to AY-infected compared to uninfected grapevine branches, although the mode of attraction was not determined. Phytoplasma infection may alter the volatile profiles of plants, rendering them more attractive to the insect vector. This may lead to an increase in the number of vectors transmitting the pathogen. The volatile compounds that attract or repel insect pests could be used in behavioural manipulation strategies to manage pests. The objective of this study was to determine the effect of AY-infection on the volatile composition of the grapevine cultivars Colombard and Chenin blanc in summer and autumn, and the associated behavioural and electrophysiological responses of M. fuscovaria towards these changes in volatile profiles.
Volatile analyses of AY-infected and uninfected grapevine branches revealed both qualitative and quantitative differences. In summer, methyl salicylate was produced in significantly higher amounts or only produced in AY-infected branches in cv. Chenin blanc and cv. Colombard, respectively. Similarly, ethyl salicylate was recorded only from AY-infected branches of both cultivars during summer. There was a significant increase in the total volatile emissions in AY-infected compared to uninfected grapevine cv. Colombard, including several green leaf volatiles. The compounds that differed significantly between AY-infected and uninfected branches in autumn were produced exclusively or in greater quantities in uninfected branches. (E,E)-α-farnesene was the most abundant compound recorded in all cases. Grapevine branches infected with AY often had a greater mass than uninfected branches with the same leaf area.
In behavioural studies, M. fuscovaria displayed no consistent preferences toward volatiles from AY-infected and uninfected grapevine branches cv. Colombard or cv. Chenin blanc in summer or autumn. In summer, there were no significant differences in the choices made by leafhoppers for both cultivars. In autumn, leafhoppers preferred purified air over AY-infected cv. Colombard branches and AY-infected cv. Chenin blanc branches over purified air. There was no difference in the choices made between male and female leafhoppers.
In electrophysiological tests, M. fuscovaria antennae displayed weak responses to grapevine volatiles collected in summer. Consistent responses were identified to 1-octen-3-ol, phenol, (E,E)-α-farnesene, which is produced at elevated concentrations by AY-infected grapevine, and aromadendrene, which was only produced by AY-infected branches and not by uninfected branches cv. Colombard. For grapevine cv. Chenin blanc, insects responded to the co-eluting green leaf volatiles (E)-2-hexenal, (Z)-3-hexen-1-ol, (E)-2-hexen-1-ol and 1-hexanol as well as nonane from uninfected branches.
The results from this study suggest that M. fuscovaria is not preferentially attracted toward AY-infected grapevine branches based solely on olfactory cues. Based on the weak responses observed in electrophysiological and behavioural tests, as well as results obtained in studies on other leafhopper species, the observed attraction could be a result of visual cues rather than olfactory cues or a combination of both.