My (Swiss)French, Poop-Scented Postdoc Project
Updated: Apr 14, 2019
With any luck, this chapter of my life will be called, I Learned French Following a Flower that Smells Like Poop.
The only problem is that I currently speak less French than my Midwestern Dad (Hi Daddio!). In addition to learning a new language, studying the chemical language of plant-insect interactions reveals that communication can be tricky for more than just us humans: the flowers in the Araceae family are full of deceit.
Now I am sure you are thinking,
"What does poop-scented flower sex have to do with my PhD work on lima bean defenses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria?" Sure, the system is different, but this new system gives me a chance to ask very similar questions in a different light: How has secondary metabolism evolved in the context of plant symbiotic relationships? What ecological factors explain the way plants communicate and cooperate with the organisms that provide a beneficial service?
Picture a purplish, greenish, calla lily-like flower. These flowers release a perfume that smells like a perfect egg-laying/young-rearing site for a fly (which means: it smells like poop).
Then, tiny adorable flies, intrigued by the prospect of a nursery, make their way down the petal-like tube of the inflorescence, where receptive female flowers in a cluster are ready for pollination. All night long the female flowers have the flies' undivided pollination services. Why? Because a series of sterile flowers bloom at the narrow opening, and the tiny adorable flies get trapped! 24 hours later, once the female flowers are adequately pollinated, the sterile flowers holding flies captive dry out just as the male flowers bloom, sending pollen on their way with the flies, who are once again, vulnerable to the trickery of the next "sweet"-smelling flower.
Will the tiny adorable flies fall for the same trick again? This is one of the big evolutionary questions that excites me. How does the deceptive mode of attraction play a role shaping the volatile signals involved in this chemical language?
Sounds like a romance language to me.
Starting Oct. 1st, 2017, all of this fascinating work will be the basis for my one-year postdoctoral research position funded by a collaborative grant between Dr. Nadir Alvarez and Dr. Sergio Rasmann at the University of Neuchâtel. I feel incredibly luck to get the chance to work with both of these wonderful scientists.
-Adrienne L. Godschalx
(Flower photos of Arum pictum by Dr. Marc Gibernau)