Effects of developmental plasticity on heat tolerance may be mediated by changes in cell size in Drosophila melanogaster

Nadja Verspagen, Felix P. Leiva, Irene M. Janssen, Wilco C.E.P. Verberk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


There is a growing interest in the physiology underpinning heat tolerance of ectotherms and their responses to the ongoing rise in temperature. However, there is no consensus about the underlying physiological mechanisms. According to “the maintain aerobic scope and regulate oxygen supply” hypothesis, responses to warming at different organizational levels contribute to the ability to safeguard energy metabolism via aerobic pathways. At the cellular level, a decrease in cell size increases the capacity for the uptake of resources (e.g., food and oxygen), but the maintenance of electrochemical gradients across cellular membranes implies greater energetic costs in small cells. In this study, we investigated how different rearing temperatures affected cell size and heat tolerance in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. We tested the hypothesis that smaller‐celled flies are more tolerant to acute, intense heat stress whereas larger‐celled flies are more tolerant to chronic, mild heat stress. We used the thermal tolerance landscape framework, which incorporates the intensity and duration of thermal challenge. Rearing temperatures strongly affected both cell size and survival times. We found different effects of developmental plasticity on tolerance to either chronic or acute heat stress. Warm‐reared flies had both smaller cells and exhibited higher survival times under acute, intense heat stress when compared to cold‐reared flies. However, under chronic, mild heat stress, the situation was reversed and cold‐reared flies, consisting of larger cells, showed better survival. These differences in heat tolerance could have resulted from direct effects of rearing temperature or they may be mediated by the correlated changes in cell size. Notably, our results are consistent with the idea that a smaller cell size may confer tolerance to acute temperatures via enhanced oxygen supply, while a larger cell may confer greater tolerance to chronic and less intense heat stress via more efficient use of resources.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInsect science
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)1244-1256
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

Fields of Science

  • 1181 Ecology, evolutionary biology
  • cell size
  • heat stress
  • rearing temperature
  • thermal death time
  • thermal tolerance

Cite this