Chemical Communication

Communication between members of your kin but also between individuals of different species is essential for all living organisms. Plants have no tongue, neither ears nor eyes, still they communicate extensively using secondary metabolites to convey messages.

We study the interaction between plants and other community members such as pollinators or herbivores at the level of the metabolites present in the plant or emitted into its environment. As plants are sessile, they developed ingenious ways to protect themselves to harmful insects and mites using traits such as trichomes, toxic secondary metabolites or proteins, and repellents that directly affect the herbivore performance.

In addition, herbivory induces plants to produce volatiles that are attractive to antagonists or enemies of the herbivore. For the latter it is important that the volatile signal is detectable and distinguishable. Volatile cues are also of major importance to seduce pollinators, next to other flower traits such as colour and the presence of nectar and pollen. We are interested in the role of terpenes in these indirect and direct defence mechanisms as well as their importance for the attraction of pollinators.

We study genetic variation present in plant terpenoid chemistry and its importance in different biotic interactions. We aim to understand the underlying processes that determine how, when and where key compounds are formed combining metabolomics (of volatile and non-volatile terpenoid compounds), transcriptomics and functional studies of key metabolites and genes. Using the molecular toolbox, genes and regulators involved in terpene biosynthesis are identified and characterised in model species Arabidopsis and tobacco but also in crop species, including cucumber, tomato and pepper. Furthermore, we study how the plant defines which portion of its fixed carbon should be invested in relative expensive terpenes instead of being allocated to growth, in other words: how do secondary and primary metabolism interact?