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.

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 more
“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 more
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
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
Max Planck researchers discovered multifunctional cellulases, enzymes capable of degrading plant cell wall components, previously unknown in animals more

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.
Have you ever wondered how fruit flies manage to zoom in on a fruit bowl or glass of smooth red wine in the blink of an eye? Although their test subject measures little more than half a millimeter, a research team working with Bill Hansson at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena is hot on the scent of the tiny fly’s olfactory system with the help of some highly sophisticated measurement technologies.
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.
Postdoc Position in Neurobiology
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena April 03, 2018

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
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
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