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2007 PSU-CU Mini-symposium

The CCE and Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology (CIRCE) are forming a powerful alliance to increase opportunities for PSU and Cornell students to be exposed to different perspectives in chemical ecology research. Anurag Agrawal, who is coordinating our efforts with CIRCE, and a group of 25 Cornell faculty, postdocs, and students were at PSU May 3-4 for the first annual PSU--Cornell minisymposium. This alliance will allow us to pool our two universities’ intellects and expertise for scientific growth and new funding opportunities. The minisymposium was held at the Penn Stater Conference Center.

Seventy-three students and faculty participated in an open and collegial discussion of their research projects and interests in chemical ecology during our first group meeting. As a result, new contacts were made, and collaborations were developed. All participants agreed that it was a very beneficial experience and that it will be repeated annually, alternating locations between Penn State and Cornell. Based on oral lab overviews and student/postdoc posters, our research falls into two intersecting sets of questions/issues (as summarized by Andy Stephenson, PSU Department of Biology):

1) Chemical Ecology, Evolution, and Foraging Behavior of Trophic Level Interactions: Plants–Herbivores (Pathogen Vectors)–Predators. This group is interested in the identification and location of plants by the herbivores (roles of volatiles) and the responses of the plants to herbivory over both ecological and evolutionary time (constitutive and inducible chemical defenses; changes in volatile production that attract predators ... changes in volatile production with pathogen infection); and the influence of the plant responses to herbivory/disease (induction of chemical defenses, changes in the composition of volatiles) on the foraging behavior of the herbivores/vectors and predators.

2) Perception and Response to Pheromones/Volatiles/Phagostimulants. This group focuses on the chemistry volatile compounds/pheromones/phagostimulants; the anatomy, physiology, and neurobiology of perception by insects; neurotransmission; and the behavioral response of the insects. 

Some factors that distinguish the Cornell and PSU groups from others in chemical ecology: strong emphasis on evolution, history of working with and collaborating with applied scientists, and nascent ties with disease ecologists who model disease dynamics.

Example of evolutionary perspective: speciation based upon response of males to novel blends/lengths of pheromones; comparative effect of different compositions of glucosinolate forms on aphids versus other herbivores; trade-offs in floral volatile composition and production for attraction of pollinators; and avoidance of diseases transmitted through flowers.

The meeting wrapped up with a group discussion of ways to further cooperation and collaboration and on methods to raise funds to finance a regional program in chemical ecology. We will have a busy and productive year ahead as we begin to address the many good ideas presented by the students and faculty at this meeting.

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