Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The evolution of the diversity of secondary metabolites

Why do plants produces always produced so many slightly differing metabolites within a particular chemical class?

Peter Klinkhamer
CSC scholarships

DR. Patrick Mulder RIKILT Wageningen University

Why do plants produces so many slightly differing metabolites within a particular chemical class?

Diversity in secondary metabolites

Plants produce an enormous variety in plant secondary metabolites such as glucosinolates, alkaloids, terpenes. Many of these metabolites help the plant to protect it against herbivores and pathogens.  Within a class of particular metabolites all plants species produce not one but a variety of related metabolites. Ragwort plants for example produce over 30 different pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

How to explain this chemical diversity?

We put up several hypothesis to explain the diversity within a particular metabolite class. Different metabolites could ward of different herbivores and pathogens, metabolites could interact synergistically, some herbivores are attracted by secondary metabolites while others are deterred or the observed variation is just neutral.  We try answer these questions by using ragwort and its pyrrolizidine alkaloids as a model system.

Why is it important?

Plant secondary metabolites are the cornerstone of the plants natural protection against herbivores and pathogens. Understanding the diversity in metabolites and the effects they have on each other and the different herbivores and pathogens is key in developing resistant varieties of our crops.

Current research

Currently we study how the interaction between secondary metabolites affects a widespread pest species, the western flower thrips. Further we study which enzymes are involved in the production of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

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