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Andre Kessler

Andre Kessler

Associate Professor

E445 Corson Hall
(607) 254-4219

Our lab studies the mechanisms and ecological consequences of plant induced responses to herbivore damage, including aspects of multi-trophic interactions, population ecology, phenotypic plasticity, plant-pollinator interactions and plant defense mechanisms against herbivores. In particular we are interested in the ecological relevance of herbivore-induced changes in flower metabolism and morphology. We are using chemical and molecular tools in manipulative field and laboratory experiments to understand the mechanisms of elicitation, signal transduction and defensive secondary metabolite production in plants, which are attacked by herbivores. The functional analysis of traits involved in the expression of induced plant responses of native species in their natural habitats may help to understand the evolution of plant defenses and eventually allows the utilization of the plants' own defenses in sustainable agriculture. Currently we focus on plant model systems in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), including wild tobacco, Nicotiana attenuata, and wild tomato species (Solanum spp.). Moreover, we started a program to understand the chemical ecology of the complex interactions of goldenrod, Solidago altissima, with its diverse arthropod community.

Research Focus

Our lab studies the mechanisms and ecological consequences of the plants’ induced responses to herbivore damage, including aspects of multi-trophic interactions, population ecology, phenotypic plasticity, plant-pollinator interactions and plant defense mechanisms against herbivores. In particular we are interested in the ecological relevance of herbivore-induced changes in flower metabolism and morphology. We are using chemical and molecular tools in manipulative field and laboratory experiments to understand the mechanisms of elicitation, signal transduction and defensive secondary metabolite production in plants, which are attacked by herbivores. The functional analysis of traits involved in the expression of induced plant responses of native species in their natural habitats may help to understand the evolution of plant defenses and eventually allows the utilization of the plants’ own defenses in sustainable agriculture. Currently we focus on plant model systems in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), including wild tobacco, Nicotiana attenuata and wild tomato species (Solanum spp.). Moreover, we started a program to understand the chemical ecology of the complex interactions of goldenrod, Solidago altissima, with its diverse arthropod community. In this system we specifically study the reciprocal interactions between ecological and evolutionary processes driving plant resistance and thus plant-biotic interactions. Moreover, we study the function of plant chemistry as information that mediates interactions between plants and other organisms.
In addition, the lab is involved in studying mechanisms of species interactions and pest control in agroecosystems, such as in the push-pull pest control technology developed by ICIPE, Kenya .

Our lab studies the mechanisms and ecological consequences of the plants’ induced responses to herbivore damage, including aspects of multi-trophic interactions, population ecology, phenotypic plasticity, plant-pollinator interactions and plant defense mechanisms against herbivores. In particular we are interested in the ecological relevance of herbivore-induced changes in flower metabolism and morphology. We are using chemical and molecular tools in manipulative field and laboratory experiments to understand the mechanisms of elicitation, signal transduction and defensive secondary metabolite production in plants, which are attacked by herbivores. The functional analysis of traits involved in the expression of induced plant responses of native species in their natural habitats may help to understand the evolution of plant defenses and eventually allows the utilization of the plants’ own defenses in sustainable agriculture. Currently we focus on plant model systems in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), including wild tobacco, Nicotiana attenuata and wild tomato species (Solanum spp.). Moreover, we started a program to understand the chemical ecology of the complex interactions of goldenrod, Solidago altissima, with its diverse arthropod community.

Outreach and Extension Focus

The research projects in my lab focus on the understanding of mechanisms and ecological consequences of induced plant responses to herbivory. Many of the plant induced responses include the increased production of toxic, antidigestive and antinutritive compounds after herbivore damage to the leaf tissue and can function as plant defenses. By understanding the mechanisms of compound induction/production, as well as the ecological consequences (function) of their production in wild plant species we lay the basis of using the plants’ natural defenses and defense strategies in modern sustainable agriculture. In this stage of our understanding of plant-induced responses it is important to communicate our results to various stakeholders, including farmers, policy makers, the public, researchers and future researchers through presentations and scientific publications in order to generate a public discussion. Thereby it is particularly important to us to consider the particular local and regional socioeconomic circumstances in which we propose new ways of pest control. Our research becomes increasingly important with an increased consumer demand for agricultural products that are grown in an organic and sustainable way.
Induced plant responses to insect herbivores or “plant behavior” as biological research examples have a broad public appeal and can function as examples to sensitize the public for pressing environmental problems or to educate to public about the value and beauty of ecological interactions. In the past year, I have used examples of our research to teach classes for the Organization of Tropical; Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica (graduate student level) and in the “Ithaca Children's Garden” (mid school level).
For the same reason, I’m currently developing a OTS special course on Plant-Insect interaction in the Tropics that will be taught for the first time in January 2010.
As in the past we will continue to educate the people in the areas in Peru, where we do our wild tomato research, through oral presentations and through collaborative interactions with the local farmers and students.

Teaching Focus

The research projects in my lab have one major theme in common, namely the understanding of mechanisms and ecological consequences of induced plant responses to herbivory. The ability of plants to change their phenotype in response to biotic interactions has been known for a relatively long time, but we are just beginning to incorporate this knowledge into our conceptual thinking about species interactions and ecosystem function. The current paradigm shift, from viewing plants as mere primary producers to accepting them as active participants in organismal interactions, provides the major motivation of my teaching efforts and determines my impact on the CALS curriculum. In my courses and together with the students I try to develop theoretical and empirical approaches to the study of "Plant Behavior". At the center of this venture stands my newly developed courses BIOEE4460/4470 “Plant Behavior” that I co-teach now with Robert Raguso from the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and Teresa Pavlovska of the School of Integrated Plant Sciences with a broadened spectrum of themes and to strengthen the laboratory practical component of the course. Similarly, I use my major involvement in BIOEE3690 “Chemical Ecology” and BIOEE7640 “Plant-Insect Interactions Seminar” to show the students that plants have strategic and adaptive responses to environmental challenges and interactions with other organisms.
A mechanistic and functional understanding of complex biological phenomena, such as “plant behavior” requires a profound understanding of the underlying ecological principles and a “naturalist’s eye” when studying organismal interactions. Therefore I’m occasionally co-teaching in BIOEE1610”Ecology and the Environment” and teach BIOEE3661 “Field Ecology” in alternating years, respectively. In particular the “Field Ecology” course allows the students get first-hand experience in field research and the fundamental principles of scientific work.
An exposure to active research and the scientific principles early in a student’s carrier can make a profound difference for the student’s performance and his/her later success as a scientist. Therefore I always have students working in my lab who enrolled in the “Introduction to Research Methods in Biology” (BIOG2990, BioG3990) course and annually provide a lecture in the “Exploration in the Life Sciences” (BIOG1010-1060) program.

Selected Publications

Journal Publications