Insects are frequently classified as being either freeze tolerant or freeze susceptible. Freeze tolerance implies that the insect can actually survive ice formation within its body. Relatively few insects have this capacity, but it is well documented in some insects such as the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis. By contrast, most insects are freeze susceptible, which means that they cannot tolerate internal ice formation. This, however, does not mean that all freeze-susceptible species can survive temperatures approaching the point at which their body will freeze. Many such species are fatally injured at temperatures well above their freezing point.
Within a single species, huge differences in cold tolerance may be evident in different stages of the life cycle. For example, in S. crassipalpis, the adult is the stage most susceptible to cold injury, while the pupa is least susceptible. If the pupa is in diapause, the overwintering state of dormancy, the pupa is even more cold tolerant. Characteristically, diapausing stages are highly tolerant of low temperature and are capable of withstanding far lower temperatures, and for much longer, than nondiapausing stages. In the flesh fly, diapausing pupae can tolerate temperatures of —20°C (a few degrees above their supercooling point) for many months, while nondiapausing pupae will be killed with an exposure of just a few hours to -10°C.
Understanding the nature of supercooling and ice nucleation is critical for understanding the strategies used by insects to survive at subzero temperatures. One might assume that an insect will freeze when its body temperature reaches 0°C, but this does not occur. Instead, the body water supercools, a process that is enhanced in many cases by the production of cryoprotectants that dramatically reduce the freezing point and thus enable the insect to remain unfrozen at temperatures down to —20°C or lower. The temperature at which the body liquid turns to ice is called the supercooling point or the temperature of crystallization. This point is easily detected by monitoring body temperature and noting the appearance of an exotherm, the burst of heat given off by crystallization as the body water freezes. The insect body contains a number of agents that can affect the supercooling point. Cryoprotectants are capable of lowering the supercooling point, whereas ice-nucleating agents elicit the opposite response. Ice-nucleating agents act as catalysts to promote ice nucleation at higher temperatures than would occur in their absence. Formation of ice at rather high temperatures is especially common in freeze-tolerant species. In such cases it is advantageous to initiate ice formation at a rather high subzero temperature, a feature that enhances survival by slowing down the processes of ice formation. By contrast, freeze-susceptible insects exploit the use of cryoprotectants to suppress the supercooling point and thus avoid freezing.
In addition to lethality, cold injury can be manifested in failure of reproduction and the appearance of developmental abnormalities. A cold shock can induce an extra molt in some species such as the greater wax moth, Galleria mellonella. Phenocopy defects, like those noted in D. melanogaster at high temperature, can also be elicited by low temperature: The incidence of aristapedia (in which antennae are transformed into legs) increases at low temperature. Sex ratios can be distorted, in some species favoring females and in others, males.
Many freeze-susceptible species are killed at temperatures well above their freezing points. The mechanism involved in this form of nonfreezing injury is poorly understood but may result from a decline in the rate of enzyme function at low temperatures or to irreversible changes in tertiary structure of critical proteins. Nonfreezing injury resulting from low temperature is frequently associated with damage to the plasma membrane. At some point chilling induces fluid to gel phase transitions in cell membranes that result in major alterations in membrane permeability and reduction in activity of membrane-bound enzymes.
Among freeze-tolerant species it is commonly assumed that survival of freezing requires that ice formation be restricted to extracellular spaces. This, however, is not always the case. Intracellular freezing does occur in some tissues such as the fat body cells of the goldenrod gall fly. Ice formation normally is initiated outside of the cell. Only water is added to the ice lattice, thus the remaining body fluids become more concentrated. This, in turn, causes osmotic removal of water from the cells. Although mechanical injury due to ice formation can be a deleterious effect, it is likely that the primary initial stress results from cell dehydration and the accumulation of excess amounts of solutes in the body fluid. The high concentrations of solutes, particularly electrolytes, can cause protein denaturation and extreme shifts in pH that result in irreversible membrane damage.
Certain systems are more vulnerable to injury than others. The neuromuscular system appears to be particularly vulnerable. As temperatures decline insects gradually lose their ability to fly, and at still lower temperatures they lose their ability to walk. Chill coma, the point at which the insect loses its ability to walk, coincides with the temperature at which the muscles and nerves lose their electrical excitability.
The reproductive system is also quite vulnerable to cold injury. Insects may appear normal but fail to reproduce following a cold shock. Both the number of eggs produced and the fertility of the eggs may be lowered by cold injury.
The injury caused by low temperature can frequently be mitigated by prior exposure to less severe low temperatures. Like the acquisition of thermotolerance at high temperatures, cold hardening enables an insect to survive at low temperatures that would otherwise prove lethal. Cold hardening can be either a long-term process attained after weeks or months at low temperature or a very rapid process (rapid cold hardening) invoked within minutes or hours after exposure to low temperature.
The traditional view of cold hardening depicts a slow process that gradually increases the insect's tolerance to low temperature. As seasonal temperatures drop in the autumn, many insects become progressively more cold hardy. Thus, a field-collected insect from the north temperate region evaluated in January is likely to be more cold tolerant than one collected in September. In contrast, rapid cold hardening is a very fast process that allows an insect to respond to daily changes in temperature. For example, S. crassipalpis, when reared at 25°C cannot survive an immediate transfer to —10°C, but if the fly is first placed at 0°C for as short a time as 10 min, it can readily survive a subsequent 2-h exposure to —10°C. The capacity for rapid cold hardening appears to be common among insects and presumably functions in enabling them to track daily and other forms of rapid temperature change.
Several diverse physiological mechanisms contribute to cold hardiness. For freeze-susceptible insects, one of the most important mechanisms involves the elimination of ice nucleators. The presence of ice nucleators limits the insect's ability to supercool; thus getting rid of potential nucleators is a critical feature of cold hardiness. Food particles present in the gut are among the most powerful ice nucleators; thus it is perhaps no surprise that many insects purge their gut prior to overwintering.
Another common cold-hardening mechanism used by freeze-susceptible insects is the synthesis and accumulation of high concentrations of low-molecular-mass polyols (glycerol, sorbitol, mannitol) and sugars (trehalose). Like a classic antifreeze, the polyols and sugars reduce the supercooling point and thus allow the insect to avoid freezing at temperatures well below 0°C. Hemolymph concentrations of polyols sometimes reach multimolar levels.
Thermal hysteresis refers to a difference between the freezing and the melting point of the body fluid. At equilibrium one would expect these two points to be nearly identical, but this relationship can be altered by thermal hysteresis proteins, also known as antifreeze proteins. Thermal hysteresis proteins depress the freezing point while leaving the melting point unchanged. This lowering of the freezing point can thus expand an insect's low-temperature tolerance. Such proteins were first discovered in cold-water, marine fish but were found more recently in several species of beetles.
Ice nucleator proteins function in a manner opposite to that of thermal hysteresis proteins. Rather than inhibiting freezing, these proteins promote freezing. Ice nucleator proteins facilitate the organization of water molecules into embryo crystals, which, in turn, seed the supercooled solution, causing freezing at relatively high temperatures. As discussed above, this is advantageous for freeze-tolerant species.
Synthesis of heat-shock proteins is a well-documented response to high temperature, but some of the same proteins are also synthesized in response to low-temperature shocks. As with heat-shock, the most prominent heat shock protein elicited by cold shock is a member of the 70-kDa family of heat-shock proteins. These stress proteins are most evident following the cold shock, thus suggesting they may play a role in the recovery process.
Insects thus have at their disposal an array of mechanisms to counter the adverse effects of low temperature. Cold hardening can entail a complex suite of responses and should not be regarded as a process driven by a single biochemical event, but species differences are likely to dictate that one particular process may be more important in one species than in another.
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