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Studying Plant-mediated Interactions at the Lytle Preserve

The overarching research objective of the Department of Molecular Ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology is to manipulate ecological interactions in nature to identify traits that are demonstrably important for an organism's Darwinian fitness in the complexity of interactions that occur in nature. We focus on plant-mediated interactions and have developed ecological expression systems with two native plants that have a rich suite of ecological interactions, Nicotiana attenuata and Solanum nigrum, as well as the herbivores that feed on them, the fungi and bacteria that interact with their roots, and their floral visitors. For more information, see:

For the 2011 field season at the Lytle Ranch Preserve, we will be examining secondary metabolites and other gene products that are involved in:

  • pollinator attraction
  • defense signaling
  • UV-B resistance
  • negotiating the complicated interactions with the plant’s microbial community
  • mycorrhizal associations
  • mate selection by plants
  • direct and indirect defense mechanisms against herbivores

Our goal is to understand how plants survive in nature. Few agricultural plants can survive even a single growing season without being pampered with fertilizers, water and protection from competitors, pathogens and herbivores. We have bred agricultural plants to do amazing things, to produce food for us which their wild ancestors didn’t, but in doing so, they have become environmentally “challenged”. Survival in the real world requires complex traits that quantitatively adjust a plant’s metabolism to meet the demands of growth, defense and reproduction required for plants to maximize their production of offspring and thereby their Darwinian fitness. Surprisingly, we know very little about the genes that make this possible. Understanding the genetic basis of these important survival traits will allow us to engineer our agricultural crops to become more self-sufficient and the two native plants that we study at the Lytle Ranch Preserve will help us to identify these genes. The Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology has been conducting research at the Lytle Ranch Preserve for more than 15 years.