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.

Contact

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.

Microbial resident enables beetles to feed on a leafy diet
Thistle tortoise beetles outsource the job of breaking down plant cell walls to a symbiotic bacterium more
Food odour enhances male flies’ attractiveness
When female flies smell their favorite food, they become more receptive to courting males more
The irresistible fragrance of dying vinegar flies
Bacterial pathogens cause infected flies to produce more sex pheromones and so expand their deadly reach more
A parasite involved in the plant alarm system
Host plants communicate warning signals through a parasite network, when insects attack more
Symbiotic bacteria: from hitchhiker to beetle bodyguard
Bacterial symbionts transition between plant pathogenicity and insect defensive mutualism more
Bergamotene—alluring and lethal for Manduca sexta
The volatile compound bergamotene increases the moths’ pollination success and protects tobacco leaves against their voracious offspring more
Bodyguards in the gut have a chemical weapon
Symbiotic bacteria produce antibiotics to clear harmful pathogens from the gut of caterpillars more
Olfactory glomeruli have a unique structure
The basic units of the olfactory system in the fly brain provide references to their function and ecological relevance more
The call of the dung

The call of the dung

Forschungsmeldung September 15, 2016
Frass excreted on fruits by vinegar flies contains sex pheromones and invites conspecifics to join the meal more
<p>Moth takes advantage of defensive compounds in <em>Physalis</em> fruits</p>
The berries act as immune boosters in the moth Heliothis subflexa, a specialist on this food more
Hawk moths have a second nose for evaluating flowers
Using olfactory neurons on their proboscis, moths weigh which flowers to visit more
Scent guides hawk moths to the best-fitting flowers
Max Planck researchers show that Manduca sexta recognizes the scent of flowers matching its proboscis and thereby optimizes energy gain more
How stick insects handle indigestive food

How stick insects handle indigestive food

Forschungsmeldung March 10, 2016
Max Planck researchers discovered multifunctional cellulases, enzymes capable of degrading plant cell wall components, previously unknown in animals more
The dandelion uses latex to protect its roots against insect feeding
A single chemical compound in the latex sap of the plant deters cockchafer larvae. more
Their enemy's sex pheromone helps flies protect their offspring
Female Drosophila flies avoid oviposition sites that smell of parasitic wasps. This increases the survival rate of their larvae. more
<p>Cooperating bacteria isolate cheaters</p>

Cooperating bacteria isolate cheaters

Forschungsmeldung December 09, 2015
Bacteria, which reciprocally exchange amino acids, stabilize their partnership on two-dimensional surfaces and limit the access of non-cooperating bacteria to the exchanged nutrients more
Edible love gifts may influence female behaviour

Edible love gifts may influence female behaviour

Forschungsmeldung October 07, 2015
Male crickets offer nuptial gifts to their mating partners which may alter the females’ reproductive physiology and make them less likely to mate with other males more
Community of soil bacteria saves plants from root rot

Community of soil bacteria saves plants from root rot

Forschungsmeldung August 25, 2015
Without a protective mix of root bacteria, wild tobacco plants lose the fight against sudden wilt disease more
Deceptive flowers

Deceptive flowers

Forschungsmeldung July 13, 2015
How flowers use scent and nectar to manipulate pollinators and herbivores more
Diversity in a monoculture

Diversity in a monoculture

Forschungsmeldung April 15, 2015
Functional differences within a species ensure its survival and improve the productivity of the whole ecosystem more
Leaf odor attracts <em>Drosophila suzukii</em>

Leaf odor attracts Drosophila suzukii

Forschungsmeldung March 18, 2015
Beta-cyclocitral is highly attractive to fruit crop pest more
Fighting the Colorado potato beetle with RNA

Fighting the Colorado potato beetle with RNA

Forschungsmeldung February 26, 2015
RNA interference protects potato plants against herbivore attack more
<p><strong>Bacteria network for food</strong></p>

Bacteria network for food

Forschungsmeldung February 23, 2015
Bacteria connect to each other and exchange nutrients more
Fruit flies can indirectly smell antioxidants

Fruit flies can indirectly smell antioxidants

Forschungsmeldung January 27, 2015
Fruit flies use olfactory cues to detect healthy antioxidants in their food more
Toxic fruits hold the key to reproductive success

Toxic fruits hold the key to reproductive success

Forschungsmeldung December 09, 2014
A dopamine precursor in the toxic fruits of the morinda tree increases fertility in female Drosophila sechellia flies more
The nutritionists within

The nutritionists within

Forschungsmeldung December 02, 2014
Firebugs depend on gut bacteria for vitamin supply more
Playing tag with sugars in the cornfield

Playing tag with sugars in the cornfield

Forschungsmeldung September 26, 2014
Armyworms deactivate a maize chemical defense by reattaching a sugar in the opposite configuration more
Ready for mating at the right time

Ready for mating at the right time

Forschungsmeldung August 29, 2014
Researchers identify a pheromone in the urine of male tilapia fish that stimulates spawning in females more
Beetles that taste like mustard

Beetles that taste like mustard

Forschungsmeldung May 09, 2014
Flea beetles outwit their host plant’s mustard oil bomb and use it for their own purposes more
Faithful allies since the Cretaceous

Faithful allies since the Cretaceous

Forschungsmeldung April 14, 2014
Symbiosis between beewolves and their protective bacteria originated millions of years ago more
The first insects were not yet able to smell well

The first insects were not yet able to smell well

Forschungsmeldung March 27, 2014
Odorant receptors of recent insects evolved long after insects migrated from water to land more
Nectar: a sweet reward from plants to attract pollinators
Flowering plants need sugar transporter SWEET9 for nectar production more
Ants protect acacia plants against pathogens

Ants protect acacia plants against pathogens

Forschungsmeldung January 17, 2014
Researchers discover an additional level of this insect-plant symbiosis more
Toxic breath keeps spiders away

Toxic breath keeps spiders away

Forschungsmeldung January 02, 2014
Tobacco hornworm larvae exhale a small fraction of nicotine from ingested tobacco leaves as a defense signal to deter predatory spiders more
Toxic substances in banana plants kill root pests

Toxic substances in banana plants kill root pests

Forschungsmeldung December 12, 2013
Banana plants protect themselves from parasitic nematodes by increasing local concentrations of defensive substances in infected root tissues. more
Preference for oranges protects fruit flies from parasites
One single odorant receptor controls choice of citrus fruits as egg-laying substrate in Drosophila more
Division of labour in the test tube

Division of labour in the test tube

Forschungsmeldung December 02, 2013
Bacteria grow faster if they feed each other more
Domesticated silk moths have limited sense of smell

Domesticated silk moths have limited sense of smell

Forschungsmeldung November 21, 2013
Domesticated silkmoths Bombyx mori have a much more limited perception of environmental odours compared to their wild relatives. more
Female moths use olfactory signals to choose the best egg-laying sites
Small changes in the composition of green leaf volatiles induced by herbivory guide ovipositing female moths to unattacked plants more
Asian lady beetles use biological weapons against their European relatives
Invasive species from Eastern Asia uses microsporidia in order to out-compete native lady beetles more
Metal ions regulate terpenoid metabolism in insects

Metal ions regulate terpenoid metabolism in insects

Forschungsmeldung February 28, 2013
Controlled by metal ions a prenyl synthase in leaf beetle larvae produces the precursors for chemical defences or juvenile hormones more
Bugs need symbiotic bacteria to exploit plant seeds

Bugs need symbiotic bacteria to exploit plant seeds

Forschungsmeldung January 09, 2013
Mid-gut microbes help insects in processing their food more
Not without my microbes

Not without my microbes

Forschungsmeldung December 20, 2012
After metamorphosis European forest cockchafers benefit from the same bacterial symbionts housed during their larval stage more
A direct line through the brain to avoid rotten food

A direct line through the brain to avoid rotten food

Forschungsmeldung December 06, 2012
Odour activation of a dedicated neural pathway by geosmin activates a hard-wired avoidance response in the fly more
Herbivore defence in ferns

Herbivore defence in ferns

Forschungsmeldung November 20, 2012

Unlike flowering plants, bracken ferns do not release any odour signals to attract the enemies of their attackers for their own benefit

more
Researchers use GPS tracking to monitor crab behaviour

Researchers use GPS tracking to monitor crab behaviour

Forschungsmeldung November 15, 2012
Scientists gain new insights into the behaviour of the coconut crab Birgus latro more
Green leaf volatiles increase plant fitness via biocontrol
Field study published in the new scientific journal eLife reveals that biological pest control using predators of insect eggs and larvae increases plant fitness more
Insecticide resistance caused by recombination of two genes
Novel enzyme makes cotton bollworm resistant against pyrethroids more
Humidity increases odour perception in terrestrial hermit crabs
Olfaction in land crabs is still in an early transitional stage between life in water and on land more
How plants make cocaine

How plants make cocaine

Forschungsmeldung June 06, 2012
The discovery of the first enzyme in the pathway sheds new light on the evolution of alkaloid formation more
<p>Tobacco plants advertise their defensive readiness to attacking leafhoppers</p>
Herbivores evaluate their host’s readiness for defence more
Flies process attractive and deterrent odours in different brain areas
Newly developed analytic device Flywalk allows accurate studies of insect behaviour to be made more
Orientation of ants: every cue counts

Orientation of ants: every cue counts

Forschungsmeldung March 09, 2012
Foraging desert ants always find their way back to the nest, even when it is only marked by a magnetic cue, vibration, or carbon dioxide. more
New bacteria toxins against resistant insect pests

New bacteria toxins against resistant insect pests

Forschungsmeldung October 19, 2011
Scientists have developed Bt toxins for the management of Bt resistance in European corn borer and other crop pests. more
How anti-mosquito repellents disorient insects

How anti-mosquito repellents disorient insects

Forschungsmeldung September 23, 2011
Chemical agent scrambles insects' odour receptor apparatus more
Insect gut microbe with a molecular iron reservoir

Insect gut microbe with a molecular iron reservoir

Forschungsmeldung September 01, 2011
Max Planck researchers analyze the structure of an iron storage protein more
Lollipops with side effects

Lollipops with side effects

Forschungsmeldung April 26, 2011
A plant’s sugary offering betrays caterpillars to predatory ants more
Molecular messages from the antennae

Molecular messages from the antennae

Forschungsmeldung April 15, 2011
Scientists assemble genes involved in regulating olfaction in the antennae of a moth more
Production of mustard oils: on the orgin of an enzyme<strong></strong><span style="background-color: transparent; color: #0d4d7b;"></span>
During the evolution of plants of the mustard family a leucine producing enzyme mutated into an enzyme that protects plants against herbivores more
Host Change Alters Toxic Cocktail

Host Change Alters Toxic Cocktail

Forschungsmeldung March 10, 2011
Gene modification: Leaf beetle larvae attacking birch trees produce toxic cocktails that differ from the ones produced by conspecifics living on willows. more
Ants employ odors for orientation

Ants employ odors for orientation

Forschungsmeldung December 01, 2010
The desert ant Cataglyphis recognizes odor maps with its antennae and makes its way home even in the most monotonous landscapes more
Orchid tricks hoverflies

Orchid tricks hoverflies

Forschungsmeldung October 15, 2010
Epipactis veratrifolia mimics aphid alarm pheromones to attract pollinators more
Deceitful lily fools flies

Deceitful lily fools flies

Forschungsmeldung October 07, 2010
Solomon’s Lily imitates a yeasty odor to lure vinegar flies into a trap more
Red light regulates nectar secretion

Red light regulates nectar secretion

Forschungsmeldung September 29, 2010
Nectar production in Lima beans depends on light quality more
Green odour with fatal consequences for caterpillars
Tobacco hornworm larvae unintentionally transform plant substances into attractant signals that betray their location to their own enemies more
The small E/Z difference and its consequence

The small E/Z difference and its consequence

Forschungsmeldung July 01, 2010
Sex pheromone production in European corn borer races explored / Tracking the origin of new species more
Plant hormone regulates nectar production

Plant hormone regulates nectar production

Forschungsmeldung March 29, 2010
Jasmonic acid triggers nectar accumulation in rapeseed flowers more
Smelling the Scenery in Stereo

Smelling the Scenery in Stereo

Forschungsmeldung March 10, 2010
Desert ants perceive odour maps in stereo and use this information for navigation more
Beewolves protecting their offspring create a buzz with antibiotics
Digger wasp larvae use bacteria against infections more
Changing flowering times protect tobacco plants against insect herbivory
Messenger molecule in oral secretions of herbivorous insects changes flower opening time of their host plants more
Bacteria expect the unexpected

Bacteria expect the unexpected

Forschungsmeldung November 05, 2009
Scientists observe the emergence of a new adaptation strategy to rapidly changing environmental conditions more
New mass spectrometric method

New mass spectrometric method

Forschungsmeldung June 18, 2009
Fast and comprehensive analyses of metabolites becomes possible more
Desert ants smell their way home

Desert ants smell their way home

Forschungsmeldung February 27, 2009
Desert ants input both local smells and visual cues into their navigation systems to guide them home more
Bitter-tasting nectar and floral odours optimize outcrossing in plants
Experiments with genetically modified plants reveal aspects of flower biochemistry more
Small helpers in the genome coordinate defence strategies in plants
Max Planck scientists decipher the "vocabulary" hidden in small RNAs that regulate plant defences against herbivores more
Surprise in the organic orchard - a healthier worm in the apple
Scientists discover how the codling moth rapidly developed virus resistance more
After insects attack, plants bunker sugars for later regrowth
One gene activates a rapid SOS (save our sugars) response in young green leaves after attack by insect larvae more
Plant Cells &quot;Black Out&quot; when Eaten by Leafworms

Plant Cells "Black Out" when Eaten by Leafworms

Forschungsmeldung March 14, 2006
A German-Italian team of researchers shows that when plant tissue is eaten by insects, it causes a decrease in electric voltage more
New Possibilities to Fight Pests with Biological Means

New Possibilities to Fight Pests with Biological Means

Forschungsmeldung January 18, 2006
Max Planck researchers in Jena, Germany have identified a gene which produces a chemical "cry for help" that attracts beneficial insects to damaged plants more
Survival Strategies in Nature

Survival Strategies in Nature

Forschungsmeldung July 05, 2004
Field Trials with transgenic wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) reveal new and unexpected insights into plant-herbivore-interactions more

Bacteria Need Partners

1/2016

Environment & Climate

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.

Eternal Summer

2/2015 On Location
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.
Plants use a broad arsenal of signal substances to fend off herbivores. It is these quiet strategies that interest the researchers attending a congress in Jena.
Bill Hansson, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, studies which odor molecules insects detect with their feelers and how they process these signals.
PhD in evolutionary ecology of chemical defences
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena November 03, 2017
Postdoctoral Position (Predators and Prey)
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena November 03, 2017

The biosynthesis of terpene pheromones in leaf beetles

2017 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. more

Herbivore-induced early defense signaling and its evolution in Nicotiana

2017 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.

more

About floral chemistry and its ecological implications

2016 Schneider, Bernd
Ecology Plant Research
Flowers are reproductive plant organs, essential for the reproduction and dispersion of the respective species. The required visual and olfactory communication with the pollinators is mediated by floral pigments and scent. In both cases, chemicals serve as information transmitters. For their service, the pollinators are rewarded with nectar and pollen, which are rich in valuable nutrients such as sugars, proteins and lipids. The qualitative and quantitative chemical analysis of the different flower constituents is one of the missions of chemical ecology. more

How insect feeding makes leaves shine

2016 Mithöfer, Axel; Boland, Wilhelm
Ecology Plant Research

Calcium ions (Ca2+) represent the most important intracellular second messengers in the signaling networks of plants. After herbivore damage the opening of specific ion channels achieve a rapid transient increase of the cytoplasmatic Ca2+-level. The enhanced concentrations can be monitored in planta after expression of the bioluminescent Aequorin, that emits light upon binding of Ca2+-ions. The signal spreads with ca. 1-2 cm/min in the directly connected vascular system and corresponds with the speed of electrical signals triggered by herbivore damage.

more

Surface chemistry of plants and insects uncovered

2015 Svatoš, Aleš
Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Microbiology Neurosciences Plant Research

The novel method of matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry imaging (MALDI-MSI) allows to uncover functions of surface-occurring glucosinolates e.g. as oviposition clues for female moths during egg-laying. Similarly, spatial distribution fatty-acid-derived semiochemicals can be determined on fruit flies cuticles which actually matched with their expected biological function. The developed protocol can be further used to study other classes of chemicals presented on a biological surface helping to understand the chemical communication between organisms.

more

Evolution of insect olfaction

2015 Große-Wilde, Ewald; Hansson, Bill S.
Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Neurosciences

The sense of olfaction is crucial for many insect species. Up until now, a major hypothesis stated that the most important of the involved receptor families, the olfactory receptors, appeared in evolution when insects emerged unto land. However, the analysis of basal flightless insects demonstrated that this is not true. The more likely scenario is that these receptors appeared when insects started to fly: Due to the higher speeds, insects have to resolve odor vanes more quickly, a task for which older receptors were probably insufficient.

more

Does functional or species diversity account for the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides?

2014 Meldau, Stefan; Schuman, Meredith C.; Backmann, Pia; Alhammoud, Nour; Kallenbach, Mario; Kellmann, Jan-W.; Baldwin, Ian T.
Ecology Genetics Plant Research

To sustain 10 billion humans, we must imbue intensive agricultural monocultures with the ecosystem services once afforded by our planet’s biodiverse terrestrial habitats. Biodiversity is linked to ecosystem productivity and stability, and functional diversity may be the cause. Yet past research on biodiversity has confounded this analysis with profuse traits distinguishing species, regardless of their function. The new project group will investigate functional diversity’s role by amortizing over 300 isogenic, but functionally distinct, Nicotiana attenuata lines created at the institute.

more

The genetic basis of evolutionary change in the sexual communication system of moths

2014 Groot, Astrid T.; Heckel, David G.
Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics

Female moths attract mates using their pheromones. Any deviation from producing the optimal blend by females, or any tendency to follow a different blend by males, results in reduced mating success and should be selected against. This poses an enigma: in the face of such strong stabilizing selection, how could the different pheromone blends now used by different moth species have evolved? Genetic studies provide a clue: a surprising amount of genetic variation can exist within species, and some of this variation can account for the evolution of differences between species.

more

Symbionts provide antibiotic defense for digger wasps

2013 Kaltenpoth, Martin
Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Microbiology

Symbioses are ubiquitous in the natural environment and enormously important for the survival of animals and plants. A group of digger wasps, the so-called beewolves, engage in a remarkable defensive alliance with bacteria: By producing a cocktail of different antibiotics, the symbionts protect the wasps’ offspring in the subterranean cocoon against mold fungi and bacteria. In turn, the beewolf provides nutrition and shelter for the bacteria in its antennae. This symbiosis already evolved in the cretaceous and may have represented a key adaptation for the evolutionary success of beewolves.

more

Bark beetle induced defense strategies in Norway Spruce

2013 Schmidt, Axel; Hammerbacher, Almuth; Nagel, Raimund; Gershenzon, Jonathan
Developmental Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Microbiology Plant Research

Norway spruce developed constitutive and induced defense responses against herbivores and pathogens. Attack by herbivores like the bark beetle and his associated fungus induces the production of additional new resin in newly formed traumatic resin ducts and the accumulation of a mixture of polyphenolic compounds in specialized cambial cells. We investigate the regulation of terpenoids and polyphenolics by characterizing branch point enzymes that control the flow of metabolites during biosynthesis for a better understanding how both defense strategies function in an ecological context.

more

Microanalysis of specialized natural products

2012 Schneider, Bernd
Chemistry Ecology Plant Research
The occurrence of specialized natural products in single cells or cell types of plants and other organisms, the composition of the mixture of metabolites and their temporal concentration changes are challenging for chemical analytics because of tiny amounts of material. Despite it is of moderate sensitivity, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopic methods are useful to precisely determine the spatio-temporal distribution of metabolites. This is feasible especially if NMR is applied in combination with laser microdissection. more

Leaf beetle larvae: Host Change Alters Toxic Cocktail

2012 Boland, Wilhelm
Ecology Evolutionary Biology Plant Research
Larvae of the leaf beetle Chrysomela lapponica feed on birches or willows. Both beetle populations utilize precursor molecules of the plants to produce chemical defenses. As a toxin, the willow population produces salicylaldehyde. The birch population does not produce salicylaldehyde, since birches do not contain the precursor salicin. During evolution this resulted in a defect aldehyde producing enzyme, a salicylalcohol oxidase. The strong association of the leaf beetles with their host plants can be considered as the beginning of a newly emerging species. more

Looking for metabolites through mass spectrometry magnifying glass

2011 Svatoš, Aleš
Ecology Plant Research
Visualizing biological material helps to map the distribution of cells and organelles to better understand the principles of life. Most methods to date rely on microscopy and different labeling techniques. However, imaged elements are observed indirectly and lack molecular specificity. Mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) directly provides information related to the mass of the compound and possibly structural data taken from collision-induced-dissociation (CID) mass spectra. Distribution maps of secondary metabolites, obtained by MSI, already answered pending questions in chemical ecology. more

The beauty of deception

2011 Hansson, Bill S.
Ecology Evolutionary Biology Plant Research
Plants of the Arum family and many orchids have something in common: they deceive flying insects using chemical deception to be pollinated and to transmit pollen to neighboring flowers. Flowers emit volatile compounds that e.g. imitate yeast-dependent fermentation products to attract vinegar flies, while others mimic female sex pheromones to seduce male insects. The duped insects are not rewarded with nectar for their indeliberate pollination service. Analysis of the volatiles involved in these deceptive mechanisms allows new insights into the ecology and co-evolution of plants and insects. more

How do plants perceive folivorous insects to trigger specific defense and tolerance responses?

2010 Bonaventure, Gustavo; Baldwin, Ian Thomas
Ecology Plant Research
The ability of plants to recognize herbivores constitutes a form of plant immunity that is essential for plant survival. This process relies on the ability to perceive signals from the insect, to transmit this information to unattacked tissues to anticipate future attacks and to mount defenses that reduce insect performance and/or activate mechanisms that allow plants to tolerate the damage. Little is known about recognition events that trigger plant responses. One of these recognition systems involves the perception of insect-derived molecules delivered to plant cells during larval feeding. more

Digestion and immunity in herbivorous insect larvae

2010 Heckel, David G.; Freitak, Dalial; Pauchet, Yannick; Vogel, Heiko
Ecology
Herbivorous insects encounter many different types of stresses in their environment. The digestive system must cope with toxins made by their host plants to defend against herbivory, and the immune system must defend against attack by pathogens and parasites. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology have discovered that these two physiological systems – digestion and immunity – interact in some unexpected ways. more
Plants make a diverse array of chemicals in order to mediate the many interactions they have with their environment. To increase the diversity of these compounds, core structures are modified by certain families of enzymes. One of the most important modifications is the formation of esters, catalyzed by acyltransferases. We have used modern techniques to characterize the genes, enzymes, and products of a family of plant acyltransferases known as the BAHD family. The sequenced genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana presents the opportunity to study a number of BAHD members. more

Living Chemical Plants: Chemical Defense in Leaf Beetle Larvae

2009 Burse, Antje; Frick, Sindy; Discher, Sabrina; Tolzin-Banasch, Karla; Strauß, Anja; Kirsch, Roy; Boland, Wilhelm
Chemistry Ecology Plant Research
In response to herbivorous insects plants produce a variety of natural compounds. Many beetle species developed sophisticated strategies to deal with these substances allowing colonization of habitats non attractive for other organisms. Frequently the plant derived compounds are used by the herbivores for their own interaction with the environment. Studying such detoxification strategies is one of the important topics in chemical ecology. They manipulate not only the evolution of beetles and plants but also of other species living in an ecosystem. more

Training molecularly enabled field biologists to understand organism-level gene function

2008 Baldwin, Ian Thomas
Ecology Genetics Plant Research
A gene’s influence on an organism’s Darwinian fitness ultimately determines whether it will be lost, maintained or modified by natural selection, yet biologists have few gene expression systems in which to measure whole-organism gene function. In the Department of Molecular Ecology scientists are training “molecularly-enabled field biologists” to use transformed plants silenced in the expression of environmentally-regulated genes and the plant’s native habitats as “laboratories". Research done in these labs will, so they hope, increase our understanding of the influence of a gene on plants’ Darwinian fitness. more

Insect Olfaction

2008 Hansson, Bill S.
Behavioural Biology Ecology Neurosciences
Most animals are strongly dependent on odour information to survive and to reproduce. This dependency has in many species created very sensitive and specific odour-detecting systems – olfaction. One well-known interaction is the strong attraction of male dogs to a bitch in heat. In science a considerable amount of information is today available regarding olfactory structure and function from several model systems, including mice and fruitflies. Insects have proven to be interesting objects for olfactory studies, mainly because most of them are extremely odour-dependent, but also because their olfactory system can be used as a model both for olfactory functions and for sensory structure and evolution in general. more

The role of volatile signals in plant defense against herbivore enemies

2007 Degenhardt, Jörg
Ecology Plant Research
In response to damage, plants produce a large amount of natural compounds. Establishing the functional role of these natural compounds in plant defense is an important topic of chemical ecology. Recently, special attention has been given to volatile plant defense compounds that are emitted by the plant attracting natural enemies of the attacker. To attract the correct enemies, plants emit specific volatile blends which respond to the different types of damage inflicted by their enemies. more

Borrowed Genes: Keys to Evolutionary Novelty in Plant-Insect Interactions

2007 Heckel, David G.; Vogel, Heiko; Fischer, Hanna; Schöne, Sebastian
Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Plant Research
In the coevolutionary interplay between herbivorous insects and their foodplants, specific chemicals play a central role: Plants and insects use novel genes to control chemicals for offensive or defensive purposes. Many of these genes arise by minor modifications of pre-existing ones, but surprisingly, some originate from unexpected sources, including the genomes of completely different species. Scientists from the MPI for Chemical Ecology review several cases that illustrate this opportunistic nature of evolution. more

Plants talk

2006 Paschold, Anja; Halitschke, Rayko; Kessler, André; Baldwin, Ian T.
Ecology Plant Research
Plants respond to herbivore attack by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that function as a defense by attracting natural enemies of the herbivore, thereby establishing defensive mutualisms with insects. The fact that plants use VOCs to communicate with insects generates the expectation that they also use VOCs to communicate with each other. Numerous studies have examined the question of whether un-attacked neighboring plants growing adjacently to attacked plants use these VOCs to anticipate future attack and preemptively activate defense responses. Most of these experiments have been carried out under experimental conditions that unnaturally amplify or distort the effects of the VOCs on neighboring plants and none have conclusively identified the active constituents of the VOC bouquet that function as signals. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena present a new experimental approach to these challenges that allows for the study of plant-plant signaling under natural conditions. more

MecWorm, an artificial caterpillar, helps to understand plants' responses to herbivory

2006 Mithöfer, Axel; Kunert, Maritta; Boland, Wilhelm
Ecology Plant Research
Insect feeding elicits the synthesis and emission of volatile compounds in the infested plants as part of the indirect defense against herbivory. By using an artificial caterpillar, MecWorm, it is possible to analyze the impact of mechanical wounding and chemical signals separately. Studies with lima bean revealed that long lasting continuous wounding of plant tissues is sufficient to induce volatile blends which are similar to those emitted after insect-feeding. Microarray techniques were used to investigate gene regulation processes on transcript levels in Arabidopsis thaliana upon insect feeding and MecWorm treatment, respectively. On the whole genome background, significant changes in transcript levels have been found locally as well as systemically in both cases for about 5700 genes. Among these genes, 4100 were identically regulated, independently from the presence or absence of insect chemical components. In contrast, the observation of about 3200 regulated genes in systemically induced leaves indicates that insect signal compounds are involved in long distance responses. more

Eco- and Chemotypes of Arabidopsis thaliana and its relatives: What were and what are the mainsprings of the evolution of its insect resistance?

2005 Mitchell-Olds, Thomas; Kroymann, Jürgen; Clauss, Maria; Vogel, Heiko
Evolutionary Biology Genetics Plant Research
We seek to understand the evolutionary forces which influence genetic variation of ecologically important traits within and among species. Following our earlier functional genomics studies in the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, evolutionary inquiries are now focused on wild, perennial species of Arabidopsis and Boechera growing in natural populations in Europe and North America. more

The biochemistry of glucosinolate hydrolysis: How insects deactivate mustard oil bombs in plants?

2004 Wittstock, Ute; Falk, Kimberly; Burow, Meike; Reichelt, Michael; Gershenzon, Jonathan
Ecology Plant Research
Plants produce a large variety of chemical compounds that are believed to protect them from herbivore or pathogen attack. However, it has been difficult to prove these defensive roles, especially since certain herbivores feed without any apparent negative effects on plants with high levels of defensive molecules. One of the most interesting groups of plant defense compounds are the glucosinolates, representing sulfur-containing metabolites that are precursors of the mustard oils. Modern molecular and biochemical methods now provide researchers with new tools to test the function of plant chemical defenses in a rigorous manner, as well as to explain how defenses may be circumvented. Here we describe how herbivorous insect species biochemically manage to disarm the plants' mustard oil bombs. more