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Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 39 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
Saponins as Insecticides: a Review
Laboratoire de Protection des Végétaux, INRAT, 2080 Ariana,
Chaieb, I. 2010. Saponins as insecticides: a review. Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 5: 39-
Saponins are heterosides (substances containing in their structure one or more sugar molecule) of plant
origin. This type of molecules has an interesting pesticide potential and this review constitutes an
inventory of principal researches realized in this direction. In the first part of this review, saponins are
defined and their different structural families are presented. The biological significance and principal
sources of saponins were also outlined. The second part of this review focused on insecticidal activities
of saponins. In fact, these substances are known by their toxicity to harmful insects (anti-feeding,
disturbance of the moult, growth regulation, mortality...); the insecticidal activity of saponins is due to
their interaction with cholesterol, causing a disturbance of the synthesis of ecdysteroids. These
substances are also protease inhibitors or cytotoxic to certain insects. The third part of the review gave
an idea on the limits which can slow down the use of saponins as insecticides: saponins have a strong
toxicity to mammals because of their cytotoxic and haemolytic activities. The second constraint is the
loss of molecule activity due to degradation of sugars associated with the aglycone. The hydrophilic
nature of saponins limits their penetration through the lipophilic insect cuticle. The structural
complexity of saponins limits the exact identification and synthesis of active molecules.
Keywords: Cholesterol, insecticide, natural products, pest management, saponin, toxicity
Some substances synthesized by
plants are necessary for their fundamental
activities whereas others, called
secondary metabolites, are involved in the
process of co-evolution between plants
and other organisms (10). The plant uses
these secondary substances for two
reasons, the first is a cooperation with
other species, to attract the pollinating
insects or the auxiliaries of the
phytophagous insects (39) or antagonistic
fungi (54); the second consists of a
synthesis of dissuasive substances to
Corresponding author: Ikbal Chaieb
Accepted for publication 18 January 2010
resist to pest organisms such insects (65),
pathogenic microorganisms (10), and
competitive plants (24).
Among substances involved in plant
defense, saponins which are heterosides
synthesized by several plants were
reported to have a defensive role which
was highlighted for the first time by
Appelbaum in 1969 (3). Saponins or
saponosides set up a large and frequent
group of heterosides in plants.
Characterized by their surface-active
properties, saponins dissolve in water by
forming a foaming solution due to their
tension-activity; hence, theses substances
take their name from latin (sapo, saponis:
soap). Saponins are used for industrial as
well as for pharmacological purposes.
Several saponosides are used by
pharmaceutical industry for obtaining
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 40 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
drugs or by cosmetics industry for their
detergent property (12).
In this review, our interest will be
focused on use of these substances as
Chemical structure of saponins.
Saponins or saponosides are heterosides
composed of two parts: a water-soluble
glucidic chain and a generally triterpenic
or steroïdic liposoluble structure
(aglycone) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Example of steroidic saponin with 4 sugar chains: Parquisoside 1 extracted from Cestrum parqui (7)
The sugars constitutive of the
saponosides can be: D-glucose D-
galactose, L-arabinose, L-rhamnose, D-
xylose, D-fructose or D-glucuronic acid.
Generally, the sugar part of heteroside
consists of one or two linear or ramified
oligosides. The molecule can include 11
sugars (but generally 3 to 5) (12).
Saponins are classified by the
majority of the authors in two groups
according to the nature of their aglycone
(Fig. 2): (i) saponosides with steroïdic
aglycone, (ii) saponosides with triterpenic
aglycone. The steroidic aglycones
represented in Fig. 2 have a whole
skeleton with 27 carbon atoms. These
molecules come from an intramolecular
cetalisation which intervenes after
oxidation in C
cholestanic precursor taking into account
spiro-nature of C
; this hexacyclic
skeleton is usually indicated by the
spirostane term. In fresh plants, it is not
rare that hydroxyl in C
is engaged in a
connection with a sugar. The structure
can be pentacyclic; it is called in this case
furostane. Some authors include
glycoalcaloides with saponins having
steroïdic aglycone group (11). The
glycoalcaloides have the same structure
as a spirostanic steroidic aglycone, except
the existence of an atom of nitrogen often
on the level of the sixth cycle (12).
The triterpenic aglycones, come
from the cyclization of the (3S)-2,3-
cyclization gives pentacyclic compounds
like dammaranes, oleananes, ursanes, and
hopanes. The majority of triterpenic
sapogenins belong to these four basic
skeletons (Fig. 2) (12).
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 41 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
Fig. 2. Different possible structures of saponin aglycones (11, 12)
Origin of saponins. Several
saponosides substances are extracted from
Glycyrrhiza glabra, Agave attenuata,
Panax ginseng, Saponaria officinalis
(20), Allium sativum (22), Medicago
sativa (43), and Cestrum parqui (18). In
addition to their plant origin, saponins can
be obtained from some marine animals.
Some saponins are isolated from
Antarctic starfish belonging to Asteriidae
family; triterpenic saponins are also
isolated from marine sponges
(Ectyoplasia ferox) (13).
Saponins are also found in defensive
secretions of certain insects. Triterpenic
saponins are isolated from Chrysomelidae
especially the Platyphora genus (41).
Species of this genus sequester saponins
from their plant hosts to use them for
their own defense (53).
Biological significance of saponins.
The various structures of saponins are
involved in several biological activities
with some beneficial or toxic effects.
These molecules have a nonspecific but
enough significant activities to control the
interaction existing between plants and
associated organisms (28, 37).
Several authors have already shown
the defensive role of saponins. In fact,
these substances protect plants from
phytophagous mammalian and insects
(28, 34, 37, 42).
Moreover, saponins are known for
their detergent properties, i.e. they have
the possibility of forming micelles with
lipids. They can also interact with
cholesterol to form insoluble complexes.
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 42 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
The majority of the biological properties
of saponins rise from these fundamental
characteristics (26, 35).
Insecticidal activity of saponins.
Researches concerning the
interaction between plants and
phytophagous insects are multiple
particularly those focused on toxicity of
certain substances toward insects. This
toxicity appears primarily in the three
Interference with the feeding
Some saponins have
antifeeding activity as is the case of
which inhibit the food uptake of
(8). These saponins are
antifeeding for a mite species
and for two
caterpillar’s species (
Rich saponin alfalfa varieties
applied on flour worm larvae
a decrease of dry food
quantity metabolized by this insect (42).
The incorporation of saponins of alfalfa
in the artificial diet of
the larvae weight loss (36).
Similar results were reported on
larvae treated by
fifteen various purified saponins obtained
from several plants (1). Agrell
also noticed that
consumed less significant quantities of
damaged alfalfa leaves than those of
control leaves; this phenomenon was
explained by the increased synthesis of
two triterpenic saponins by the plants
under biotic stress.
In the same way, the addition of
saponins of certain leguminous plants
(chickpeas, garden peas, broad beans,
haricot beans, lentils, peanuts) in the
artificial diet of
inhibits its food uptake; this inhibition is
stronger when saponins used originated
from different host plants (3).
phytophagous specific insect consuming
plants belonging to Brassicaceae family.
It was noticed that the larvae are unable
to attack one Brassicaceae
(45). The separation
of the fractions of this plant revealed the
involvement of triterpenic saponin, with
two sugars in C
in the important
inhibition of the food uptake activity (46).
A spirostanic saponin isolated from
) showed an
antifeeding activity against
on artificial diet (48).
Saponins extracted from
roxburghii, Agave cantala
were tested for their antifeeding
Monodesmoside saponins are shown to
be more active than the bidesmoside
ones. Saponins having the least
significant number of sugar chains were
most active (31).
Glycoalcaloids extracted from the
inhibit the weight
In these compounds,
neither the aglycone alone nor when
associated with sugars present this
inhibitory activity (55).
show a repulsive activity against the
as well as
a moderate antifeeding activity for
researches show that saponins are able to
regulate the growth of many insect
species. These studies resumed in Table 1
concern purified or crude saponins
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 43 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
extracted from several plants. The effect
of saponins is generally characterized by
developmental stages duration
disturbance and moulting failure. The
mode of action of “Insect Growth
Regulator’s” activity is discussed below.
Table 1. Growth regulation effects of saponins on some insects
Insect species Saponins Effects Reference
Lengthening of the larval stages
Spodoptera littoralis alfalfa saponins
Lengthening of stages, delay of time necessary
to reach the maximum size in last larval stage,
delay of the interval separating the last larval
stage and the nymphal moulting, and delay of
time necessary for the emergence of the adults
commercial saponins Larvae show more pronounced pigmentation
and deterioration of the head and abdomen
Allium porrum saponins
Larvae present ecdysial disturbances, which
often finish by characteristic malformations:
larvae with double head
(5, 28, 29)
Ecdysial failure (6)
Collosobruchus chinensis Fabaceae saponins Reduction in the rate of adult emergence
Spodoptera littoralis Cestrum parqui saponins Impossibility to get free from the old cuticle
during the molting process (16)
Shistocerca gregaria Cestrum parqui saponins Ecdysial disturbances (9)
The crude saponins
increase insect mortality (9). In the same
way, the spray of tomato leaves by 0.1 to
0.2% of an aqueous solution of alfalfa
saponins reduces the number of
aphids by 85 and 90%, respectively.
Saponins of alfalfa can also cause
mortalities on eggs of
The introduction of alfalfa saponins
into the food of
larval mortalities reaching 100% for the
larval stages. Mortalities were also
recorded for the nymphal stage;
moreover, only 60% of the treated
chrysalis emerge (36). Treated by 100
ppm saponin of alfalfa leaves,
shows a cumulative mortality of
90% at the larval and the nymphal stages
(1). Various forms of chronic toxicity as a
reduction in the fertility of the females
and the blossoming eggs rate are observed
in the same insect species (1). The
saponins extracted from the leaves and
the roots of the alfalfa are toxic for
The addition of aginoside 1
(steroidic saponin) to the artificial diet of
larvae with an
amount of 0.9 mg/g, causes 56% of
mortality (29). The commercial saponins
larvicidal activity against the mosquitos
larvae of two species
100% of mortality is
obtained by using amounts of 1000 mg/l
during 5 days (40).
Crude saponins of
showed a variable toxicity on various
tested insects (
Schistocera gregaria, S.
most significant toxicity was observed on
the larvae of the mosquito
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 44 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
Forming insoluble complexes with
saponins, cholesterol is not absorbed any
more by the digestive system of various
animal species. The mechanism of
formation of the cholesterol/saponin
complexes is still unknown. Certain
authors suggest a chemical reaction
between the saponic aglycone and the
lipophylic sites of cholesterol (51); Mitra
and Dungan (35) show that there is a
formation of micelle or spheres structures
between cholesterol and saponin
The hypocholesterolemic activity of
saponins was largely studied in many
mammals (20, 34). Is such
cholesterol/saponin interaction possible in
insects? Theoretically yes, since insects,
while being unable to synthesize
cholesterol, they use this substance in the
biosynthesis of the ecdysone (moulting
hormone) and various other ecdysteroids.
This hypo- hypocholesterolemic
mechanism, similar to that observed in
the mammals following the action of
saponins, could interfere with the
biosynthesis of the ecdysone and explain
the disturbance of moulting process often
observed following ingestion of
(9) or by the incorporation
of extracts in the insect diet (15).
Various natural or synthesized
insecticidal substances affecting the
biosynthesis or the mechanisms of action
of ecdysone, have a disturbing effects on
insect growth and moulting (5, 6). In fact,
saponins are substances often cited in the
literature as provoking difficulties of
exuviations and malformations of various
insect species. Some of these works
evoke the possibility of interaction of
saponins with cholesterol but no
demonstration was made until now.
Some experiments (Table 2) showed
an Insect Growth Regulator activity of
consuming saponins supplemented with
cholesterol support better the toxic effect
of saponins; this fact is in favor of an
antagonistic effect of cholesterol and
consolidates our assumption concerning
the mode of action of saponins (17).
Table 2. Effects of cholesterol addition in the diet of some insects treated with different saponins
Insect species Saponins used Effects of cholesterol addition Reference
Acrolepiopsis assectella Aginosid Reduce the larval mortality from 56%
to 22% and moulting failures from 19
Acrolepiopsis assectella Digitonin Reduction in the death rate from 62 to
Acrolepiopsis assectella Digitonin Removes completely the toxicity (6)
Tribolium confusum Cestrum parqui saponins Reduction of larval mortality from 95
to 45% (17)
Tenebrio molitor Alfalfa saponins Elimination of the saponin toxicity (43)
Tribolium castaneum Solmargine, Solasonine, Tomatine Increase the viability of treated larvae (55)
Several authors (29, 43, 55) suppose
a possible interaction saponin/cholesterol
causing cholesterimic deficit in insect,
disturbing the ecdysone synthesis. This
complexation can occur in food,
hemolymph, or inside the insect cells.
Studies trying to react in vitro cholesterol
with saponin remained unfruitful
although the use of various methods and
solvents (14), whereas certain works
reported formation of a precipitate with
similar reactions (26, 51).
The mechanisms of interaction of
saponins with cholesterol are still
unknown and according to certain
authors, there is no formation of an
intermediate compound but a spherical
structure, intercalation between saponin
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 45 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
molecule and cholesterol, called micelle
(35) or tubular structures (32) may be
involved. Consequently, saponins do not
block cholesterol or other phytosterols in
the food, but this reaction could take
place later inside insect body where other
conditions are satisfied (pH, enzymatic
Other scientific attempts to
proportionate cholesterol in insects
consuming saponins did not lead to
reliable results because undoubtedly of
methodologies used which would be
unsuited to very low circulating
cholesterol rates. Cholesterol is not in
majority in the phytophagous insect food
because plants contain other types of
sterols as sitosterol and sigmasterol. It is
possible that this interference between
saponin and cholesterol would take place
inside insect cells (17). Some authors
suppose the possibility of interaction of
saponin with ecdysteroid receptors (22,
23). With the injection of crude saponins
necrotic symptoms appear at the injection
site. In the same way, a forced ingestion
of crude saponins has, as a consequence,
a softening of the consistency of the
digestive tract of
pickling of the fat body of
in saponins increases its tanning
Histological studies revealed
structural modifications at the fat body of
as well as on the foregut and
the gastric caeca of
modifications were due to the cytotoxicity
Similar effects are obtained by treatment
mosquito larvae by
The microscopic observations of
treated insect tissue cuts show smaller
size cells than the control at the fat body
as well as at the digestive
In addition, the cells
of the fat body appear darker due to the
loss of their contents probably caused by
the modification of their membrane
permeability, and even with the
disorganization of their molecular
In addition to the moulting
disturbance and the cytotoxic activity,
certain authors evoke an inhibitory
activity of the digestive proteases of
saponins involved in the entomo-toxicity
recorded (9). Another work concerning
the effect of food treated by
a deficit in the digestion of proteins and a
decrease of the protein rate in the
hemolymph and the cuticle (16).
Limits of the use of saponins in
relatively big size molecules which
contain sugars whose degradation is
easier under certain conditions (pH
slightly acid or basic, presence of
hydrolysis enzymes...). This degradation
leads to the loss of activity which
enormously depends on the water-soluble
sugar chains. The modification of the
by the acetylation of sugars hydroxyls or
the separation of the aglycone by
hydrolysis led to a loss of the insecticidal
activity of the molecule, which confirms
results obtained by various authors (4, 9,
30, 32, 51).
Barbouche (9) already reported that
active than saponins; this demonstrates
the loss of saponin’s activity following
their hydrolysis. Indeed, it has been
shown that the aglycone obtained was
inactive by grafting of these crystals in
just like acetylated saponins. It
seems that the various structural
modifications are involved in the
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 46 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
hydrophily loss; the molecule needs the
sugar chain for its solubility in the
hemolymph and for its activity (14).
Moreover, various authors report the
loss of the biological activity of saponins
by structural modifications. Indeed,
(32) showed that a
reduction of the chain of
-tomatine or of
-choacine increased the total loss of
activity due to the membrane rupture. In
the same way, a study of the
digitonine/cholesterol interaction shows
that analogues of digitonine could be
associated with cholesterol. Various
degrees of glycosylation of the digitonine
are used: two, four or five sugars are
associated to the aglycone, the results
show that this complexation increases
when the number of associated sugars
. (30) then Armah
confirm these results by using similar
saponins having the same triterpenic
aglycone and by showing successively
that the nature of sugar influences little on
the molecule activity, but that, on the
other hand, the hydrolysis of one, two or
three sugars increases the total or partial
loss of activity.
There is another
problem which makes delicate the
practical application of saponins as
insecticide; it is the repulsive or
antifeeding activity of saponins to several
pest insects. Indeed, it was noticed that
saponins decrease very appreciably the
quantity of food consumed; this
phenomenon seems to be a defense
reaction of the animal against these toxic
substances; this have as consequence the
reduction in the quantity of active
molecules introduced by ingestion and
then reduction of the activity (14).
Problems of application.
insecticidal activity of saponins of
is interesting in
experiments of injection and forced
ingestion. Death, in these cases, is
observed after a few hours. The problem
is that these experimental methods are
practically not applicable. It is necessary
to develop simpler and more effective
techniques. Treatments by topic
application do not give the anticipated
results because of the impermeability of
the cuticle to saponins. Some researches
tried to associate saponins with abrasive
insecticides (diatomous earth) which can
cause wounds on the cuticle; this
association remains also unfruitful (14).
molecules characterized by a heavy
molecular weight and an important
structure complexity; this reduces their
chance to be used like model to
synthesize insecticidal molecules. Most
works undertaking the synthesis of these
products do it only partially (28).
Saponins have a cytotoxic
(27) haemolytic (52) effects and are able
of inhibiting the proteases activities (56);
this represents a constraint if we attempt
to apply these substances as agricultural
products. These saponins are, in fact,
rather as toxic for pests as for human.
Secondary substances in plants are
known for a long time for their medicinal
and pharmacological properties. These
substances are necessary for the plant to
evolve in a hostile environment. The plant
can indeed use its secondary metabolites
to be protected against several pest
animals and pathogenic microbes.
Saponins present one of these
substances of large action spectrum
broad, because of their toxicity to various
insects. The mode of action of saponins
seems in relation to the property of these
Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 47 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
molecules to be interacted either with
structural cholesterol (membrane) or with
metabolic cholesterol (food).
The practical application of this type
of substances remains difficult because of
easy degradation of these substances, the
impossibility of acting by contact, the
difficulties of their synthesis and their
toxicity to mammals.
Saponins present an excellent model
of study of natural substances with
insecticidal effect due to their large
spectrum of action and to the multitude of
their physiological effects. It is, however,
early to recommend application of
saponins as insecticides. Thorough
studies of their modes of action and
application should be done firstly.
Chaieb I. 2010. Les saponines comme insecticides: revue de synthèse. Tunisian Journal of Plant
Protection 5: 39-50.
Les saponines sont des hétérosides (molécules ayant au moins un sucre dans leur structure) d’origine
végétale. Ce type de molécules présente un potentiel insecticide faisant l’objet de cette synthèse. Dans
la première partie de notre étude, nous avons essayé de les définir et de présenter leurs différentes
familles structurales. Un aperçu sur la signification biologique et les principales sources de saponines
est donné. La
deuxième partie de cette synthèse s’intéresse aux principaux travaux réalisés sur les
différentes activités insecticides. Ces substances occasionnent plusieurs formes de toxicité à l’encontre
des insectes nuisibles (anti-appétence, perturbation de la mue, régulation de la croissance, mortalité…);
l’activité insecticide des saponines proviendrait de leur interaction avec le cholestérol causant une
perturbation de la synthèse des ecdysteroïdes. Ces substances possèdent également des propriétés
inhibitrices de protéases et cytotoxiques. Dans la
troisième partie de ce travail, nous avons donné une
idée sur les contraintes qui peuvent freiner l’utilisation des saponines comme insecticides: les
saponines présentent, en effet, une forte toxicité à l’égard des mammifères à cause de leur activité
cytotoxique et hémolytique. La deuxième contrainte est la dégradation facile des sucres associés à la
génine entraînant souvent la perte d’activité de la molécule. Le caractère hydrophile des saponines
limite leur pénétration à travers la cuticule lipophile des insectes. La complexité structurale des
saponines est une barrière à l’identification exacte des molécules actives et à leur synthèse.
Mots clés: Cholestérol, insecticide, lutte, saponines, substances naturelles, toxicité
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Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 5: 39-50 .
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Tunisian Journal of Plant Protection 48 Vol. 5, No. 1, 2010
ذ إ ةا ا آا نأ تمأ إو ا ا ا ارد
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