Photo: Jan-Peter Kasper

Department of Biochemistry

Director: Jonathan Gershenzon

The Department of Biochemistry investigates the role of chemistry in plant-herbivore interactions. We study how plant-produced defenses and nutrients influence herbivore performance and behavior. We also investigate the impact of chemical compounds on herbivorous insects or how they or their associated microbes metabolize them. The goal is to use chemical tools to develop new knowledge about how herbivore-host plant relationships evolved and their ecological consequences.

Chemical compounds often mediate the outcome of plant-herbivore interactions. However, it has been very difficult for researchers to prove the roles of individual compounds due to the astounding diversity of plant metabolism.

In the Department of Biochemistry, we develop new methods to identify and quantify the abundance of plant metabolites, and study their biosynthesis. By isolating and characterizing the genes and enzymes involved in plant pathways, we develop tools to manipulate plant phenotypes and understand their impact on herbivores. In addition, detailed knowledge of plant defense pathways gives us important insights into the control and evolution of defense.

We also study how herbivores and their associated microbes metabolize plant defenses to shed light on the effectiveness of these chemical compounds and their mode of action, and to understand the causes of herbivore host ranges. The discovery of detoxification reactions, including the genes and enzymes responsible, can also reveal much about the adaptations of herbivores to plants.

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