Plant Chemical Ecology: The Secret Life of Plants

Winter 2020
Class Size: 50
Credits per quarter

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Taught by

Calabria, Lalita square
botany, phytochemistry, systematics

In order to survive, organisms need to obtain energy, successfully reproduce, and avoid their enemies. The survival strategies of animals often include movement: stalking prey, visually or audibly communicating, or escaping/avoiding their enemies. Plants, however, cannot rely on movement-based strategies. How can plants survive if they cannot run away when threatened? Do they communicate with other organisms? What can they do to attract mates or beneficial partners? The key to these questions can be found in a more subtle strategy used by plants: the production of a vast array of chemical compounds, known as plant hormones and secondary metabolites. These plant chemicals serve as the basis for plant communication within their ecosystems by mediating interactions between plants and mutualists such as pollinators, seed dispersers, and microbial partners, as well as enemies such as pathogens, herbivores, and competitors.

This program will focus on increasing understanding of the unseen chemical world of plants that ultimately determines the distribution, abundance, and diversity of species in an ecosystem. Lectures, labs, and seminar readings will focus on topics in plant morphology, physiology, chemistry, and ecology, including a survey of the major classes of secondary metabolites found in plants and their known ecological functions, as well their distribution in major plant families.

In labs we will practice techniques and experiments in plant chemistry for separating and analyzing mixtures of secondary metabolites, such as extraction, distillation, and chromatography. In botany and plant physiology labs we will become familiar with family-level characteristics of major groups of plants, as well as learn techniques for measuring plant growth and plant response to stress using plant chemical bioassays and culturing techniques for plant pathogenic and symbiotic fungi. Students will participate in group and individual research projects focusing on topics in plant chemical ecology that may include data collection and analysis, scientific writing, and library research. Group research projects will culminate in contributing to the program’s popular science blog and a final group presentation.

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in:

botany, natural history, and environmental research.


Credits per quarter


At least two quarters of both general biology and chemistry; one quarter of botany strongly preferred.

Online learning:
  • Enhanced Online Learning - This offering requires access to web-based tools, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

Upper division science credit:

Up to 16 credits of upper-division science may be earned by students who successfully meet all the program learning objectives.

Class Standing: Junior–Senior
Class Size: 50

Scheduled for: Day

Final schedule and room assignments:

First meeting:

Monday, January 6, 2020 - 10:00 am
SEM 2 E2105 - Workshop

Located in: Olympia

2019-12-12Angelos Katsanis added to teaching team
2019-10-21Prerequisites added