Photo: Sebastian Reuter

Research Focus

What we are researching

The Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology investigates how organisms communicate with each other via chemical signals. We analyze ecological interactions using molecular, chemical and neurobiological techniques. Chemical Ecology examines the role of chemical signals that mediate the interactions between plants, animals, and their environment, as well as the evolutionary and behavioral consequences of these interactions. In the Institute, organic chemists, biochemists, ecologists, entomologists, behavioral scientists, insect geneticists and physiologists work in collaboration to unravel the complexity of chemical communication that occurs in nature.

Chemical Ecology is the study of the role, diversity and properties of the chemical signals that mediate interactions between organisms and their environment.The overarching goals of our research are to gain fundamental insights into the chemical communication between plants, insects and microorganisms, and to understand how these aspects influence the development of individual organisms as well as the evolution of species. Because plants are sessile organisms, they need effective strategies to disperse their offspring. We also want to understand the processes in the brains of insects that control their behavior.

We investigate how plants best adapt to their respective environments and identify the chemical compounds they produce to attract pollinators, fend off herbivores and pathogens, or keep unpleasant competitors away. In the course of evolution, insects have adapted to the survival strategies of plants. We therefore analyze the genetics, physiology and behavior of herbivorous insects. Insects also make use of plant substances to protect themselves against predators: They sequester toxic compounds; some insects even signal by exhibiting their bright colors that they should better not be eaten.

Microorganisms play a crucial role in the fitness ofplants and insects. Some are pathogens, others help to supply nutrients or boost the immune system. We want to determine who plays which role. Of special interest is how insects perceive odors and tastes.

We investigate how insects “translate” the vocabulary of odors emitted by plants and other insects, how odors influence insects’ behavior when they search for food, and how they locate sexual partners and the ovipositing sites where their offspring can thrive.

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