Plant Chemical Ecology: The Secret Life of Plants

Winter 2020
Junior - Senior
Class Size: 50
16 Credits per quarter
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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.



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

Winter 2020 Registration

Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16): 20223

Academic details

Preparatory For

botany, natural history, and environmental research.

Maximum Enrollment
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.
Class Standing
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.


Time Offered
Schedule Evergreen link
see Schedule Evergreen for detailed schedule

First Meeting

SEM 2 E2105 - Workshop
DateRevision 2019-12-12 Angelos Katsanis added to teaching team 2019-10-21 Prerequisites added