The Extremely Low Energy Cost of Biosynthesis in Holometabolous Insect Larvae


The metabolic cost of growth, which quantifies the amount of energy required to synthesize a unit of biomass, is an important component of an animal's ontogenetic energy budget. Here we investigated this quantity as well as other energy budget variables of the larvae of a holometabolous insect species, Vanessa cardui (painted lady). We found that the high growth rate of this caterpillar cannot be explained by its metabolic rate and the percentage of the metabolic energy allocated to growth; the key to understanding its fast growth is the extremely low cost of growth, 336 Joules/gram of dry mass.

The metabolic cost of growth in caterpillars is 15-65 times lower than that of the endothermic and ectothermic species investigated in previous studies. Our results suggest that the low cost cannot be attributed to its body composition, diet composition, or body size. To explain the "cheap price" of growth in caterpillars, we assumed that a high metabolic cost for biosynthesis resulted in a high "quality" of cells, which have fewer errors during biosynthesis and higher resistance to stressors. Considering the life history of the caterpillars, i.e., tissue disintegration during metamorphosis and a short developmental period and lifespan, we hypothesized that an energy budget that allocates a large amount of energy to biosynthesizing high quality cells would be selected against in this species. As a preliminary test of this hypothesis, we estimated the metabolic cost of growth in larvae of Manduca sexta (tobacco hornworm) and nymphs of Blatta lateralis (Turkestan cockroach). The preliminary data supported our hypothesis.


Biological Sciences

Research Center/Lab(s)

Center for Research in Energy and Environment (CREE)


The authors acknowledge funding from University Missouri System Research Board.

Keywords and Phrases

Growth; Life history; Metabolic cost; Metamorphosis; Tissue quality

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)


Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version


File Type





© 2020 Elsevier Ltd, All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Jan 2020