Fundamental and applied research in chemical ecology

We study the role of chemicals in the interactions among organisms, with an emphasis on plant-insect interactions. We are interested in the mechanisms, as well as the ecological and evolutionary implications of these interactions. Our research has lead to several key discoveries of how plant-produced chemical mediate the interactions among plants, herbivores that feed on the plants, and the natural enemies of these herbivores. In addition to trying to complete our fundamental understanding of these interactions, we currently explore ways to use this knowledge for the development of novel crop protection strategies.



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  • Indole as a key leaf-to-leaf alert signal

    In a recent paper published in Nature Communications the FARCE lab, in collaboration with the group of Matthias Erb at the University of Bern, shows that the volatile compound indole is an essential airborne signal for the communication between maize leaves. Plants that are under attack by caterpillars use this signal to alert other leaves so that they can prepare a chemical defence against the caterpillars. Leaves from plants with a mutation that prevents them from synthesising indole were found to be unable to communicate in this manner.

  • Cuckoos in Science

    We contributed to a study by Daniella Canestrari and Vittorio Baglione (Universities of Oviedo and Valladolid, Spain), who discovered that nests of carrion crows can benefit from broodparasitism by the great spotted cuckoo. This surprising interaction is due the fact that cuckoo chicks produce an awfully bad smelling secretion when they are harassed. This defensive response was found to protect the nest against predators. For this study, which was recently published in Science , Gregory Röder from the Farce lab analyzed and identified the volatiles emitted from the cuckoo secretion.

  • New detoxification mechanisms in caterpillars revealed

    In a recent publication in Phytochemistry (in press), Daniel Maag, a PhD student working on our Sinergia project , reports on a novel detoxification product of maize 1,4-benzoxazin-3-ones (BXs). The larvae of two Spodoptera species were found to enzymatically glucosylate a BX breakdown product, thereby facilitating its excretion and alleviating its toxicity. By contrast, larvae of the European corn borer, Ostrinia nubilalis, suffered from the presence of the breakdown product in their diet. This was accompanied by poor glucosylation efficiencies in these insects. 


  • Plant strengtheners may help to improve biological control

    In 2012 the British Royal Society organized a Discussion Meeting on food and environmental security. This resulted in a special issue on this topic published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, which emphasizes the need for drastic science and technology-based changes to agriculture in order achieve sustainable food security. Our contribution to this issue is a review on the prospect of using plant strengtheners to enhance biological control of insect pests. The review includes a highly promising study conducted by former FARCE PhD student Islam Sobhy. He shows a long lasting enhanced attraction of parasitic wasps after treating plants or seeds with the laminarin and BTH. Islam conducted a post-doc at Rothamstead research and currently is a post-doc in Japan (Okayama University) with Ivan Galis.

  • Career moves of former FARCE members

    Sergio Rasmann initiated our successful research on entomopathogenic nematodes as a PhD student. After leaving our group in 2006 Sergio first did volunteer work in Bolivia and then moved to Cornell University with an SNF fellowship to do a post-doc in the laboratory of Anurag Agrawal. He returned to Switzerland (University of Lausanne) as a SNF Ambizione fellow. After a short appointment as assistant professor at the University of California Irvine during 2014, Sergio came home to the University of Neuchâtel, where he has been appointed as assistant professor in Functional and Community Ecology.


    Former FARCE PhD students Matthias Erb and Christelle Robert have teamed-up. They left Neuchâtel in 2011, for a move to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology (Jena, Germany). Their fast-track course in all aspects of life has resulted in Christelle winning the 2012 UniNE Prix du Développement durable for her PhD thesis and Matthias to win the 2013 Prix Nexans for his research accomplishments. In February 2014 they moved to the University of Bern, where Matthias became assistant professor in Biotic Interactions .