Short-sequence fragments (‘DNA barcodes’) used widely for plant identification and inventorying remain to be applied to complex biological problems. Host–herbivore interactions are fundamental to coevolutionary relationships of a large proportion of species on the Earth, but their study is frequently hampered by limited or unreliable host records. Here we demonstrate that DNA barcodes can greatly improve this situation as they (i) provide a secure identification of host plant species and (ii) establish the authenticity of the trophic association. Host plants of leaf beetles (subfamily Chrysomelinae) from Australia were identified using the chloroplast trnL(UAA) intron as barcode amplified from beetle DNA extracts. Sequence similarity and phylogenetic analyses provided precise identifications of each host species at tribal, generic and specific levels, depending on the available database coverage in various plant lineages. The 76 species of Chrysomelinae included—more than 10 per cent of the known Australian fauna—feed on 13 plant families, with preference for Australian radiations of Myrtaceae (eucalypts) and Fabaceae (acacias). Phylogenetic analysis of beetles shows general conservation of host association but with rare host shifts between distant plant lineages, including a few cases where barcodes supported two phylogenetically distant host plants. The study demonstrates that plant barcoding is already feasible with the current publicly available data. By sequencing plant barcodes directly from DNA extractions made from herbivorous beetles, strong physical evidence for the host association is provided. Thus, molecular identification using short DNA fragments brings together the detection of species and the analysis of their interactions
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