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.

Symbiosis of burying beetles

Burying beetles rely on their gut symbionts in order to transform decaying carcasses into nutritious nurseries for their young

Leaf molecules as markers for mycorrhiza

Metabolites in above-ground parts of a plant reveal a plant’s successful mutualism with mycorrhizal fungi

Brain areas for feeding and egg-laying in hawkmoths

Activity in specific areas in the olfactory center of female Manduca sexta correlates directly with different behaviors

“Let’s feel the spirit of unity”

Bill Hansson, Vice president of the Max Planck Society, talks in an interview about the Max Planck Day, the nationwide, public MPG science event that takes place on September 14th throughout Germany and beyond

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


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.

The desert ant’s use of its own built-in GPS – consisting of a sun-compass-based path integration system and visual landmarks – in locating its nest is a known phenomenon. Researchers recently ascertained, however, that this system also includes a sense of smell. Even more surprising is the discovery that these animals learn to distinguish between different odors in the nest environment, and use these like a map. Markus Knaden and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena set out to search for clues in ant country.

Scientific Coordination Assistant

Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena December 06, 2018

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

2018 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

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.


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.


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.


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.

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