Quantifying plant soluble protein and digestible carbohydrate content, using corn (Zea mays) as an exemplar

Carrie A. Deans, Gregory A. Sword, Paul A. Lenhart, Eric C Burkness, William D Hutchison, Spencer T. Behmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Elemental data are commonly used to infer plant quality as a resource to herbivores. However, the ubiquity of carbon in biomolecules, the presence of nitrogen-containing plant defensive compounds, and variation in species-specific correlations between nitrogen and plant protein content all limit the accuracy of these inferences. Additionally, research focused on plant and/or herbivore physiology require a level of accuracy that is not achieved using generalized correlations. The methods presented here offer researchers a clear and rapid protocol for directly measuring plant soluble proteins and digestible carbohydrates, the two plant macronutrients most closely tied to animal physiological performance. The protocols combine well characterized colorimetric assays with optimized plant-specific digestion steps to provide precise and reproducible results. Our analyses of different sweet corn tissues show that these assays have the sensitivity to detect variation in plant soluble protein and digestible carbohydrate content across multiple spatial scales. These include between-plant differences across growing regions and plant species or varieties, as well as within-plant differences in tissue type and even positional differences within the same tissue. Combining soluble protein and digestible carbohydrate content with elemental data also has the potential to provide new opportunities in plant biology to connect plant mineral nutrition with plant physiological processes. These analyses also help generate the soluble protein and digestible carbohydrate data needed to study nutritional ecology, plant-herbivore interactions and food-web dynamics, which will in turn enhance physiology and ecological research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere58164
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number138
StatePublished - Aug 6 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thanks to all of our collaborators who have assisted with sweet corn field collections, including Dominic Reisig and Dan Mott at North Carolina State University, and Pat Porter at Texas A& M University in Lubbock, TX. Thanks to Fiona Clissold for helping to optimize the protocols and for providing edits to this manuscript. This work was supported in part by the Texas A& M C. Everette Salyer Fellowship (Department of Entomology) and the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant Program competitive grant no. 2015-33522-24099 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (awarded to GAS and STB).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Journal of Visualized Experiments.

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Agriculture
  • Environmental sciences
  • Geometric framework
  • Herbivory
  • Insect
  • Issue 138
  • Macronutrients
  • Nutrition
  • Physiology


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