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Student Research Spotlight - Angela Coco

Posted: February 17, 2017

This is the 1st of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

The choice dilemma
By Hannah Stewart

The delicious aroma is wafting through the air. Is that pizza? You follow your nose to the smell, but wait a minute- do you also smell Chinese food? Just like we do, insects use aromas given off plants to decide where to find their delicious food. Each plant gives off a different aroma, with related plants giving off similar smells. Angela Coco is looking to see if planting unrelated pants next to each other will help decrease the amount of pests.

“I’m going to be a farmer,” is not what you typically expect a hard core scientist to say. However, for Coco, nothing works better than show and tell. Her Master’s project in Dr. John Tooker’s lab at Pennsylvania State University will focus on growing plants of various relatedness next to each other. Family tree, or phylogeny, may be more important than just inheritance, as for plants,it determines how you smell to people around you.

Plants will give off various chemicals signals,like smells, which insects use to find their food.If all of the plants in the field are the same, then there is only one type of signal. This is like going to a restaurant where all the food is the same. This creates a fantastic meal for the pest, and it's not hard to locate your next meal when you finish with your current one.

However, if there are lots of different plants in the same field, then there are lots of different chemical signals. Having so many different smells could confuse the pest, making it harder for them to find their meal.This is like walking into a food court with lots of different smells, which makes it harder to decide on what to eat. More importantly, if you are specifically looking only for chinese food, you may miss it. By planting distantly related plants together, Coco hopes this would overall reduce the number of pests by confusing them.

Previous work has proven that different types of the same plant, known as strains, already helps reduce pests. But how far can we push this relatedness? If only being different siblings helps you, what about if you are distant cousins on the plant tree of life? Coco’s project will be looking to see if being distantly related will further decrease the amount of pests.

That delicious tomato could be protected by its orange cousin, the carrot. They could be confusing pests by camouflaging each other's scent.  And who wouldn’t want a more colorful field? It’s a good excuse to have to grow a larger variety for more tasty treats.