Seductive scent of sweet fruits

New iDiv research group investigates communication between plants and animals

The German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) adds a new research field to its portfolio. From November 2020, the biologist Dr Omer Nevo will head the new iDiv Junior Research Group ‘Evolutionary Ecology’. The 35-year-old scientist is particularly interested in chemical communication between plants and animals – in detail, how plants attract seed-dispersing animals by their fruit scent and how both sides have adapted to each other. This knowledge about the signalling effect of odours should also help to find new approaches in nature conservation. Nevo and his team will be funded for six years with about 1.3 million euros from the Emmy Noether Programme of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

The sweet scent of a fig is irresistible to the wild lemurs of Madagascar. But how did the fig smell become so appealing to the animals? This is the main question that Omer Nevo’s new research group plans to investigate at iDiv from November onwards.

To find answers, the researchers will combine chemical and genetic approaches. With the help of behavioural experiments with lemurs, the researchers plan to investigate how their sense of smell might have developed in response to this signal. “Seed dispersal and the ecological process behind it are the glue that holds many tropical systems together,” says Nevo. “A collapse in reliable animal-plant interactions would stop forest regeneration and, in the long run, drive a substantial decline in tropical biodiversity.”

“Lion scent” as a tool in nature conservation

Nevo and his team also work on practical tools for nature conservation. A project in South Africa explores the chemical ecology of elephants and the results will help develop novel conservation tools. Crop raiding by elephants is a massive problem in their home ranges. It can lead to economic devastation of subsistence communities, and to conflicts that often culminate in the killing of elephants. Nevo and his colleagues try to identify chemicals that can act as safe and cost-effective repellents for elephants, thus mitigating the human-elephant conflicts.

At iDiv scientists from different backgrounds such as biology, computer science, psychology, social sciences etc. work together with the aim of conducting integrative research. “iDiv has become one of the most exciting global research institutions,” the biologist says. “It hosts a unique concentration of scientists and research groups doing cutting-edge ecology research. I believe this will strongly benefit our own research.”

Best conditions for productive collaboration

Nevo’s field of expertise is a perfect fit for iDiv and its research portfolio and provides the basis for strong collaborations. “One of the most productive chemical ecology groups – the ‘Molecular Interaction Ecology’ group of Prof Nicole van Dam – works at iDiv,” says Nevo. “In addition, Dr Renske Onstein’s junior research group ‘Evolution und Adaptation’ is one of very few research groups in the world focusing on the evolution of fruit traits, a topic that is at the heart of my research.”

The DFG’s Emmy Noether Programme, which will fund Omer Nevo and his team for the coming six years, aims to support exceptionally qualified early-career researchers. By leading an independent junior research group, participants formally satisfy the prerequisites for appointment as a university professor. Nevo has recently worked at the Institute for Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Genomics at Ulm University.

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