Project Groups in the Department of Entomology

Host Plant Adaptation, © MPI CE / H. Vogel

Dr. Heiko Vogel

Insect‐plant interactions, exemplified by the constant arms race between host plants and their insect herbivores, provide an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of species interactions on molecular, ecological, and evolutionary levels. Food source is a major determinant for physiological performance in all living beings and a strong selection force for herbivores. The evolutionary success of phytophagous insects is largely dependent on their ability to utilize either many different food plants or their specialization towards specific host plants. While generalists face an array of different plant defenses (secondary plant compounds), and therefore need to likely invest in broad detoxifying strategies, specialist herbivores need to fine tune their adaptation to specific plant defenses. However, knowledge about the molecular mechanisms and evolutionary dynamics underlying specialist and generalist adaptation, host plant shifts and the potential for re-colonizing host plants is scarce or completely lacking.
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Group members: Dr. Hanna Heidel-Fischer (postdoc), Anne Karpinski (PhD student), Corinna Krempl (PhD student), David Neunemann (PhD student), Domenica Schnabelrauch (technician), Henriette Ringys-Beckstein (technician), Steffi Gebauer-Jung (bioinformatics)


Digestion, © MPI CE / Y. Pauchet

Dr. Yannick Pauchet

Larvae of herbivorous insects must ingest large amounts of plant material to achieve high growth rates during their lifetime. First, they have to cope with a recalcitrant physical barrier, namely the plant cell wall, to get full access to important nutrients insect larvae require to achieve their growth. Plant cell walls are composed of the most abundant biopolymers on the planet such as cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin (primary cell wall) and lignin (secondary cell wall). Some of these polymers are polysaccharides and represent a rich source of energy for insects which have evolved the ability to hydrolyze them. Second, insect larvae also face and have to adapt to high concentrations of plant defenses in their diet, such as proteinaceous inhibitors of digestive enzymes and toxic plant secondary metabolites. For an insect to successfully adapt to its host plant, its digestive system must overcome those plant defenses. During the course of evolution, a true ‘arms race’ has taken place between the insect digestive arsenal and plant defenses, leading to the emergence of large families of digestive and detoxifying enzyme genes. By combining molecular and biochemical approaches such as comparative transcriptomics and proteomics, as well as protein expression and characterization, our goal is to investigate in depth the mechanisms that contributed to the adaptation of the insect digestive arsenal to plant defenses and environmental stresses.
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Group members: Roy Kirsch (postdoc); Bianca Wurlitzer (technician); Suyog Kuwar (PhD student); Andre Busch (PhD student).


Spodoptera frugiperda mating, © MPI CE / S. Hänniger

Dr. Astrid T. Groot

Sexual attraction is the first step in determining who mates with whom. The evolution of sexual communication thus plays a pivotal role in the process of speciation. However, very little is known about the causes of initial divergence between populations in finding mating partners, and whether variation in sexual attraction can drive divergence between populations or whether such variation follows after populations have diverged due to ecological factors. Nocturnal moths are ideal animals with which to address this research question, because their communication channel is virtually all pheromonal, and the pheromone components are very well defined. Our research revolves around the following two major questions: I) what is the genetic basis of intraspecific variation in sexual communication, and II) what environmental factors may (have) cause(d) variation in sexual communication. Our research can be divided into three main areas.
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Group members: Dr. Silvia Schmidt (postdoc), Melanie Marr (PhD student), Sabine Haenniger (PhD student), Andrea Barthel (PhD student), Antje Schmalz (technician).