The form of nitrogen influences not only the pathogenicity of soil borne fungal diseases, but also susceptibility to insects.

From the podcast interview with Larry Phelan.

John: As you were looking at these plant-insect dynamics in the field and developing your hypothesis of biological buffering, what was something that surprised you?

Larry: The one thing that was particularly exciting to us was when we took the next step and tested this idea of mineral balance resulting from this biological buffering of organic matter. We started growing plants hydroponically so that we could vary the proportions of different nutrients. The hypothesis we were testing was actually that when the plant was in good mineral balance, you would get both good growth and resistance to insect attack. And then as the plant moved out of balance nutritionally, you would see plant growth go down and insect performance actually go up. And then, ultimately, as the plant was way out of balance nutritionally, we expected the plant to not grow very well and the insects not to do very well either because of the poor host plant.

We tested this with a number of different combinations of nutrients, and the one that was most dramatic—that actually supported this prediction—was looking at soybeans in which we varied the ratios of ammonia to nitrate in the plant. We provided it all the nutrients that it needed in constant levels for all the plants. What we were testing was different ratios between these two different forms of nitrogen. And what we found was that as we increased the amount of ammonia up to about 30 percent, we saw the best plant growth. That ratio of 30 percent ammonia and 70 percent nitrate is where we got the best plant growth.

And then, when we looked at insects, we plucked the leaves off of these plants and then fed them to insects to see how the insects grew. The particular insect we were working with was the Mexican bean beetle. When we fed these leaves to the Mexican bean beetle, we saw just the opposite response. In other words, where the plant was out of bounds nutritionally and not growing very well, that’s where the insects grew the largest and that’s where we saw the best survivorship. But as we moved towards that 30 percent ammonia level, where the plants were growing their biggest, insect survivorship dropped from about 90 percent down to about 30 or 40 percent.

It was a very dramatic effect—even more dramatic than what we were expecting. When we followed up on this and measured the levels of free amino acids in these plants, it was consistent with the prediction. In other words, those plants that were not growing as well, that were out of balance in terms of this ratio, had much higher levels of free amino acids relative to that 30 percent ammonia plant.