Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology

The Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena investigates the role, diversity and characteristics of chemical signals which control the interactions between organisms and their environment. Scientists from the fields of ecology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, entomology, ethology, and insect physiology work closely together in the Institute in order to understand the complex system of chemical communication. Their research focuses on the co-evolution of plants and insects. The fact that plants usually spend their entire lives in one place forces them to use effective strategies to guarantee that their offspring are spread and also to protect themselves against pests and diseases. To this effect, plants have developed a wide range of chemical signalling compounds that enable them to optimise their adaptation to their respective environments. These so-called allelochemicals are used to, among other things, attract pollinators, fend off herbivores and pests, fight diseases and keep unwelcome competitors away. Plants also synthesise mixtures of many organic substances that have a deterrent or toxic effect on herbivores. As a countermeasure, insects that feed on plants adapt accordingly and, for their part, try to overcome plant defences.


Hans-Knöll-Straße 8
07745 Jena
Phone: +49 3641 57-0
Fax: +49 3641 57-1002

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):

IMPRS on Chemical Communication in Ecological Systems

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Department Evolutionary Neuroethology


Department Insect Symbiosis


Department Natural Product Biosynthesis; acting mgmt. Molecular Ecology


Department Emeritus Group (Entomology)


If other visual cues are missing, ants build higher nest hills to facilitate homing of foraging nest mates


Single-cell multi-omics reveals that cell types are differentially involved in the production and accumulation of medically relevant plant compounds


The insects release phenylacetonitrile to fend off their own conspecifics


Two bacterial partners supply auger beetles with vital nutrients for the synthesis of a sturdy exoskeleton


High levels of ozone destroy the chemical mating signal of the insects and may thus contribute to global insect decline

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Max Planck researchers are currently collaborating with partners in over 120 countries. In the following article they talk about their personal experiences and impressions. Andrea Müller from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena spent four months in Peru. She has been studying plants that live symbiotically with ants in the Tambopata National Reserve in the southeast of that country. Below, she shares her enthusiasm for the rainforest and how, in addition to the coronavirus, protesting coca farmers can jeopardize scientific field work.

Trees stand for strength and steadfastness. However, the latter can also be a handicap. This is because trees can neither run nor hide from enemies. Nevertheless, trees are by no means defenseless. Sybille Unsicker from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena is investigating how black poplars defend themselves against voracious insects.

Leghold traps, limed rods, pit traps - insectivorous plants have come up with unusual strategies to obtain additional nutrients. Axel Mithöfer at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena is investigating how pitcher plants from Southeast Asia entrap and digest their victims.

Every cabbage plant conceals a bomb – a mustard oil bomb. For many insects, this makes the plant unpalatable. Franziska Beran from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena now knows, however, how insects can avert this danger: flea beetles, for example, outsmart the plants’ defensive weapon and even commandeer it for their own protection.

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A tripartite relationship between trees, herbivorous insects and fungi

2021 Unsicker, Sybille

Ecology Microbiology Plant Research

Black poplar leaves are particularly susceptible to be attacked by gypsy moths if they are also infected by a fungus. Actually, young larvae of the gypsy moth that feed on leaves covered with fungal spores gain biomass much faster and pupate several days earlier than larvae that feed only on leaf tissue. The reason for this is probably that fungal spores improve the supply of nutrients in the caterpillars’ diet. Thus, some herbivores may be in fact also fungivores. Fungi and microorganisms probably play a more important role in the coevolution of plants and herbivores than previously thought.


How plants make drugs

2020 O'Connor, Sarah E.

Ecology Evolutionary Biology Plant Research

Plants produce an enormous number of complex molecules. These compounds play various roles in the plants’ natural environment. Many of these compounds are also used in both traditional and modern medicine; some have even life-saving properties. Our aim is to elucidate the fundamental chemical, biological and evolutionary processes that underlie the biosynthesis of these complex molecules in order to be able to optimize their production using synthetic biology.


An olfactory receptor detecting caterpillar frass governs competition avoidance in a moth

2019 Knaden, Markus; Zhang, Jin; Hansson, Bill S.

Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics

The tobacco hawkmoth uses olfaction to localize suitable host plants for oviposition. Recent findings suggest that the moth not only decides based on odors emitted by host plants, but also can sense odors emitted from frass of conspecific larvae already present on this host plant. By avoiding oviposition in the presence of frass odors, the female moth avoids conspecific competition for its offspring. Using the novel genetic tool CRISPR/Cas9 we could identify the olfactory receptor detecting these frass odors and hence, governing the moth’s competition avoidance.


Plankton communities: How unicellular organisms make decisions and respond to stress

2018 Pohnert, Georg

Developmental Biology Ecology Microbiology

Marine microalgae are ubiquitous in the ocean plankton and biofilms. We aim to elucidate how chemical signals and gradients affect plankton communities and how large species assemblages as well as microscopically small clusters are controlled by chemical signaling. We showed that plankton microalgae as well as bacteria produce a previously unknown sulfur compound and thus might fundamentally impact microbial interactions and the global sulfur cycle.


Use of a new evolutionary conflict to improve the control of agricultural insect pests

2017 Heckel, David G.

Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Microbiology Plant Research

ABC transporters have many useful functions in insects, such as determining the coloration of the caterpillar body and the adult eye, and likely the detoxification of plant defense metabolites. But ABC transporters are also vulnerable to attack by toxins made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The use of these toxins in transgenic crop plants sets up a new evolutionary conflict between benefits and costs of ABC transporters, that can help in the control of insect pests of agriculture.

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