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 "The Exploration of Ecological Interactions with Molecular and Chemical Techniques"

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

Diamondback moth uses plant defense substances as oviposition cues

A Chinese-German research team identifies the olfactory receptors of a pest insect that control its preference for cabbage, rapeseed and related species.

Air pollution renders flower odors unattractive to moths

Tobacco hawkmoths are not attracted to flower odors when ozone levels are high; however, the moths are able to learn that odors modified by ozone may offer a reward, that is, nectar

Dodder uses the flowering signal of its host plant to flower

The plant parasite eavesdrops on its host and uses the host’s mobile floral stimulus for timing its own flowering

Strigolactones increase tolerance to weevils in tobacco plants

In a crosstalk with other plant hormones, these novel plant hormones regulate the resistance to endophytic Trichobaris mucorea larvae

Fungal pathogen disables plant defense mechanism

The white mold fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum detoxifies the mustard oil bomb in plants of the cabbage family


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.

Bacteria are individuals that always operate in isolation? Not at all, says Christian Kost of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. In fact, he thinks bacteria frequently can’t help but cooperate. His team is using cleverly devised experiments to test this hypothesis.

Even on cloudy days, the sun shines in the greenhouse of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology: 520 high-pressure lamps with assimilation sodium vapor bulbs ensure that the plants have sufficient light and that the spectral distribution is right for photosynthesis. To simulate uniform irradiation, the lamps move back and forth automatically on tracks. The air conditioning is also computer controlled: temperatures remain at summer levels - but not too high - all year round.

Many insects rely on bacteria for vital support. The microorganisms produce survival cocktails for their larvae, help them break down indigestible food components or supply essential vitamins. Martin Kaltenpoth and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena are elucidating fascinating details about the symbiotic relationships between insects and microbes.

PhD position to study the formation of terpenes in the genus Baccharis L.

Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena August 13, 2020

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.


The biosynthesis of terpene pheromones in leaf beetles

2016 Köllner, Tobias G.; Beran, Franziska

Ecology Plant Research

Many insect species emit aggregation pheromones to attract conspecifics to host plants. This can lead to rapid mass infestations and severe crop losses in agriculture. Recently, a novel family of terpene synthases was discovered in Phyllotreta flea beetles which are important pests of crucifer crops. One member of this enzyme family was shown to be responsible for the formation of the sesquiterpene aggregation pheromone of the pest species. This knowledge on insect pheromone biosynthesis may lead to new approaches in pest management.


Herbivore-induced early defense signaling and its evolution in Nicotiana

2016 Xu, Shuqing; Baldwin, Ian T.

Ecology Plant Research

Insect feeding often induces early defense signaling in plants that activates a cascade of anti-herbivore defenses, protecting the plants from further attack. However, defense responses can also reduce the plant`s ability to survive due to physiological trade-offs. Thus plants need to evolve a robust signaling network that regulates these herbivore-induced defenses. Phylogenomic analysis of the genes involved in herbivore induced transcriptomic responses in Nicotiana showed that genome multiplication likely played an important role in shaping the evolution of early defense signaling in plants.

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