Plant Chemical Ecology: The Secret Life of Plants

Winter 2017 quarter

Taught by

Lalita Calabria
botany, phytochemistry, systematics
  • UG


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

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 since they are rooted in place. So 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 students' understanding of “the secret life of plants”- that is, the 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, students with have the opportunity to 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, students 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.

Program Details

Fields of Study

biochemistry biology botany ecology environmental studies

Preparatory For

biology, botany, ecology, and environmental studies.


Winter Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First class meeting: Monday, January 9th at 10am (Sem II A1107)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$25 for workshop supplies.


2017-01-04Fee added ($25).
2016-05-04New winter opportunity added.