Chemical Ecology

Jennifer Dean is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Entomology. I photographed her in one of the greenhouses where research is conducted as part of the College’s chemical ecology program. We needed a picture for a late addition to Penn State Agriculture magazine, which will be headed to the printer on Monday. Access to the greenhouse meant passing through a locked door, then a pressurized airlock designed to remove any unwanted insect passengers that might be on our clothes, and finally into the greenhouse. It didn’t take long to make a picture for the magazine, not the one above, but it did take a bit longer as I tried to understand what takes place here.

Dean described her research focus on the chemical ecology of plant-insect interactions, particularly as influenced by below-ground elements such as plant-associated microorganisms and soil nutrients. She’s studying the effects of microbe-induced changes to plant signaling and nutrition on the interactions between herbivores and plants. If you want to read one of her papers you can download Effects of Genetic Modification on Herbivore-Induced Volatiles from Maize.

The machinery in the picture was not set up for an experiment but what you see is a sophisticated vacuum pump which when connected to atmospherically controlled containers is able to pump out the volatile gases given off my plants. Those gases can then be analyzed with a gas chromatograph to study exactly what plants do when attacked by insects. This is a simplistic explanation but remember, I’m a photographer. I’m curious, but no scientist.

I continue to be surprised at the complexity of the science involved in agricultural research. I did a quick scan of some of the courses offered related to chemical ecology. Check out Entomology 539 – Chemical Ecology.

Success in the ag sciences demands a solid foundation in chemistry, biology, and mathmatics.


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