Student Research Spotlight - Bipana Paudel Timilsena

Posted: June 24, 2016

This is the 10th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Translating the language of plants: how do plants teach each other self-defence?
By Asher Jones

Have you ever had a conversation with a plant? No? Maybe that’s because you’re not speaking their lingo. Plants use a language of airborne chemical signals to alert their neighbours of dangers. This early warning system allows plants to ramp up their immune systems. Figuring out which chemicals translate to “danger!” could be an important weapon in the battle against plant pests.

“Plants that have been exposed to chemical signals from damaged neighbours can respond to attack from pests quicker and more effectively” says Penn State PhD student Bipana Paudel Timilsena. Her research will focus on uncovering the specific chemical and gene(s) responsible for activating plant immune systems. Such knowledge could be used to give plants a helping hand against voracious pests like caterpillars which are a major problem for growers.

“I am curious to learn how we can induce plants to defend themselves against pests” explains Timilsena. She hopes her research could be used to develop pest resistant plant varieties and chemical applications that activate natural plant defence responses, “akin to acquiring immunity from diseases, like vaccinations in humans”. Such technologies would reduce the need for pesticides, benefitting the environment and the farmers who grow crops.

Timilsena is working alongside Dr. James Tumlinson to conduct her research using tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) plants and the pest caterpillars tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens).  However, Timilsena expects that her findings are likely to apply to other plant species too.

Thanks to Timilsena’s research we might be one step closer to fluency in the language of plants, and to helping them fight off pests!