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Student Research Spotlight - Erica Smyers

Posted: June 13, 2014

This is the 3rd of twelve short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Plants Signal to Insects
By Anne Jones

“I didn’t even know plants had the ability to communicate with insects via smells.” said Erica Smyers a graduate student in Penn State’s entomology department, as she recently described her research project.

Erica is examining specific genetic differences between horsenettle families that influence the production of important plant-insect signaling chemicals. She also plans to examine the relationship between the tomato hornworm caterpillar and different horsenettle varieties.

Previous research by Penn State faculty Consuelo de Moraes and Mark Mescher on the common weed, horsenettle, modeled the ability of plants to communicate with insects by releasing chemical signals to “call in reinforcements” – natural enemies that attack insects eating the plant. Horsenettles with higher genetic variability are more successful in signaling predatory insects. As a result, these plants will be healthier than horsenettles that are inbred.

A common weed may provide greater understanding about the genetic makeup that alters plant chemical signals.