Ag Sciences faculty members to appear on PBS 'Nature'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Two faculty members in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will be featured during an episode of the PBS series "Nature" that will air in most markets at 8 p.m. on April 3.

Titled "What Plants Talk About," the episode will highlight the work of Consuelo De Moraes, professor of entomology, and Mark Mescher, assistant professor of entomology. The researchers are engaged in the growing field of chemical ecology, which examines the chemically mediated interactions among plants, insects and pathogens in the environment.

De Moraes and Mescher study the defensive responses of plants to insect feeding, including the production and release of volatile compounds by the plants that can signal and attract the insect herbivore's natural enemies.

They also explore signaling between parasitic plants and their hosts, which will be one focus of the PBS program. The "Nature" crew documented the Penn State team's research on the parasitic dodder plant, a vine-like weed that uses chemical cues emitted by other plants to locate a suitable host on which to attach and feed. With no roots of its own, dodder -- which is sometimes called strangleweed -- relies on its host for nutrients.

"Dodder can be found in home gardens and landscapes, and it's an important agricultural pest," said De Moraes. "For example, it attacks alfalfa in Pennsylvania, and it's a serious problem for tomatoes and other crops in California."

Once attached to a plant, it's very difficult to get rid of without killing the host, she explained. "One goal of our research is to identify the mechanisms by which dodder finds its host in hopes of disrupting the process and preventing the parasitism."

Mescher said the broader objective of chemical ecology research is to determine how this chemical communication among plants and insects influences natural systems.

"Because these interactions are chemical and largely unseen, they have not been documented and well understood," he said. "As the field of chemical ecology matures, we're discovering answers to many questions surrounding these complex relationships."

A preview of the segment featuring De Moraes and Mescher can be viewed online at http://psu.ag/102eQV4.

The "Nature" episode will air in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania on WPSU-TV at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3. The program is scheduled to air at the same time on WHYY, Philadelphia; WQED, Pittsburgh; WITF, Harrisburg; WQLN, Erie; and WVIA, Pittston. It is scheduled to air on WLVT in Allentown at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 8. Viewers should check their local listings to confirm air times.

After the broadcast, the entire program will stream at http://pbs.org/nature.

More information about Penn State chemical ecology research is available at the Center for Chemical Ecology website.

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Last Updated April 29, 2013