Ian Baldwin, Ph.D. ’89, Neurobiology and Behavior

Ian Baldwin
Ian Baldwin, courtesy of Phys.org

If you’re an avid gardener, you may follow the old bit of advice to talk to your plants—even if it makes you feel a bit sheepish, who could argue with success? And if you’re a novice green thumb, you may wonder, staring at the remains of a houseplant that was lush and green a month ago, if your conversation wasn’t engaging enough.

Scientists aren’t yet sure whether talking to plants—regardless of the quality of chitchat—can really help them to thrive. But they are learning that plants engage more with their environment than we once thought. Ian Baldwin, a molecular ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, has been at the forefront of this research his entire career.

Baldwin has worked most closely with coyote tobacco and its natural consumer, the tobacco hornworm caterpillar. “One of the cool things we’ve worked out,” says Baldwin,”is that when the tobacco hornworm attaches, a spit factor in saliva activates a signaling component in the plant that immediately starts the plant pumping out this very complex perfume.” The odor summons the caterpillar’s predators, who are then able to make life safer for the plant.

The tobacco hornworm
The tobacco hornworm

In his research, Baldwin was able to take this a step further. He created a strain of tobacco that turned off the gene in the caterpillars that was normally switched on when they ingest nicotine, a substance found in high concentrations in tobacco leaves. He saw the effect of this gene when the caterpillars that had consumed the modified tobacco were themselves eaten by predators at a much higher rate than usual. The gene allowed the caterpillar to produce a toxic signal of their own that made them unattractive as food.

For Baldwin, work in the lab is never enough. He needs to see how things play out in the field, in a natural environment. One of his goals, he says, is “to train ‘genome-enabled field biologists,’ and revive and reincorporate the study of natural history into all the revolutionary technical advances that are happening in biology’s genomics revolution.”

And it’s easy how to imagine how his research might be used. Being able to understand and perhaps modify plants’ chemical signals could have a big impact on agriculture and the way we use pesticides.

“The indirect defenses of plants (the ability of plants to supply reliable information to predators about the location and activity of crop pests) are probably those that could be most readily included in some crop protection program,” he says. “And projects are already underway.”