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Chemical Ecology of Plant-Insect Interactions

Our research goal is to understand the chemical ecology of plant interactions with insects and other organisms to facilitate the development of ecologically sound, environmentally safe, biologically based methods of pest management for agriculture. Included in our area of interest are interactions between insect herbivores and their host plants, multitrophic interactions involving parasitoids and predators of the insect herbivores, and the role of other organisms, like bacteria and fungi in this complex ecosystem. We study chemically guided foraging behaviors of insect parasitoids with the aim of developing methods to increase their effectiveness and reliability for biological control of insect pests. We discovered that volatile organic compounds released by plants under attack by herbivorous insects play a major role as cues that enable natural enemies of the herbivores, such as insect parasitoids, to locate the pests. The knowledge derived from this and subsequent discoveries promises to be particularly valuable in developing new sustainable methods for the biological control of insect pests of agricultural crops. Examples of new approaches to pest management include development of crops that produce stronger signals to attract predators and parasitoids and/or direct chemical defenses when attacked by herbivores. Also, management practices that use naturally produced chemical signals to manipulate pests and their natural enemies have been developed and proven effective in reducing damage to crops. Students working in our lab will gain experience in chemical analyses of volatile organic compounds by using chromatographic and spectroscopic methods. They will also use molecular biology techniques like pcr to determine which plant genes are affected by chemical signals, and they will learn to develop and conduct biological assays to determine the activity of chemical signals.

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Number of undergraduates needed: 1
Minimum qualifications: Major in a biological science or chemistry. Curiosity, enthusiasm and motivation to understand how biological systems are regulated by chemicals. Students who wish to work (and receive a salary) during summers on their research project are preferred.

Contact Info

James Tumlinson
111 Chemical Ecology Lab
Agricultural Sciences
814 863-1770
jht2@psu.edu
Entomology