Symbioses between insects and microbes are ubiquitous, but vary greatly in terms of function, transmission mechanism, and location in the insect. Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) are one of the largest and most economically important insect orders; yet, in many cases, the ecology and functions of their gut microbiomes are unresolved. We used high-throughput sequencing to determine factors that influence gut microbiomes of field-collected fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea). Fall armyworm midgut bacterial communities differed from those of corn earworm collected from the same host plant species at the same site. However, corn earworm bacterial communities differed between collection sites. Subsequent experiments using fall armyworm evaluating the influence of egg source and diet indicated that that host plant had a greater impact on gut communities. We also observed differences between regurgitant (foregut) and midgut bacterial communities of the same insect host, suggesting differential colonization. Our findings indicate that host plant is a major driver shaping gut microbiota, but differences in insect physiology, gut region, and local factors can also contribute to variation in microbiomes. Additional studies are needed to assess the mechanisms that affect variation in insect microbiomes, as well as the ecological implications of this variability in caterpillars.
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